WWII By The Books: The Pocket-Size Editions That Kept Soldiers Reading | KUOW News and Information

WWII By The Books: The Pocket-Size Editions That Kept Soldiers Reading

Dec 10, 2014
Originally published on December 10, 2014 8:11 am

This week in 1941, Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor. Over the next few years, millions of Americans would leave home to fight in Europe and the Pacific. They had few comforts and little in the way of escape or entertainment — at least not until American publishers got involved.

"During World War II, American publishers wanted to support the troops," author Molly Guptill Manning tells NPR's Renee Montagne. "And so they decided that the best they could do was print miniature paperback books that were small enough that they could fit in a pocket so the men could carry these books with them anywhere."

Guptill Manning's new book, When Books Went to War, is a history of these paperbacks, known as Armed Services Editions. They included all sorts of literature — from Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare to mysteries and Westerns — and were the culmination of earlier efforts on the part of American librarians to get used books to servicemen with help from book drives. Well-intentioned though they were, the results of these book drives were mixed, turning up titles like How to Knit and Theology in 1870. So the focus switched to designing and printing books that soldiers actually wanted to read — no easy task since these Armed Services Editions had to be battlefield ready.

"They're about the size of a smartphone, and they were tucked into the pockets of uniforms," Guptill Manning explains. "The paper that they were printed was about the strength of newsprint. And so it was believed that each book would probably withstand about six readings before it would start to fall into pieces."

But these books were in high demand, and servicemen were known to push their limits. "There are actually reports of some books having waiting lists of 30 guys."


Interview Highlights

On one of the most popular Armed Services Edition titles, Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

This book made them think of home. Men who never set foot in Brooklyn wrote to Betty Smith ... to say that they felt like they were reading about their hometown.

On the letter Betty Smith received from a 20-year-old Marine thanking her for her book

He talks about how he went around for two years with a dead heart, and he was hospitalized with malaria. He asked a nurse for a book because he was bored and had nothing else to do. She happened to give him a copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and the book just changed his entire outlook. It made him laugh, it made him cry. And he said even though a battle-hardened Marine usually doesn't cry, he was proud of his tears because it proved that he was human again. He closed the letter saying that he didn't think he'd be able to sleep through the night if he hadn't thanked the woman who caused him to live again.

On why Chicken Every Sunday, a relatively unknown book by Rosemary Taylor, was so popular

The book tells the story of a young girl who grew up in a boarding house where her mother entertained all sorts of zany characters and each night fed them mouthwatering dinners. And so, as men were stationed around the world eating rations out of cans, to read these stories about these wonderful dinners made them think of their own mothers and the meals that they used to eat at home. It gave them a trip back home basically. One man said it was like taking a leave.

On the appeal of romances and books with steamy sex scenes

Many men wrote in saying, "We would like to read books like Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith because," as one man said, "this book has sex scenes and a lot of them." ...

[Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor] was more of a romance novel. And actually some of the people that were in charge of selecting the books expressed concern about sending what they called "trashy books" to soldiers and sailors who were fighting at war. And so, top publishers in the United States were presented with the question of whether they should be sending trashy books to American troops, and the publishers said yes. They said if the men want to read trashy novels then let's send them trashy novels.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's hear a tale of books going to war - lots and lots of books. Seventy-three years ago this week, President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke of a date which will live in infamy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: The United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

INSKEEP: After Pearl Harbor, millions of Americans would leave home to fight in Europe and the Pacific. Comforts would be few, and there would be little in the way of escape or entertainment.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

One much-prized item then, tiny books.

MOLLY GUPTILL MANNING: During World War II, American publishers wanted to do their part to support the troops. And so they decided that the best they could do was print miniature, paperback books that were small enough that they could fit in a pocket. So the men could carry these books with them anywhere.

MONTAGNE: That's Molly Guptill Manning, who has just written a history of those books. They were known as armed services editions and included a wide array of titles. There was Charles Dickens, and there was Shakespeare plus mysteries and also westerns like, "Harvard Has A Homicide," and "Six-Gun Showdown." The project came out of earlier efforts to get used books to servicemen. With Nazis banning and burning books over in Europe, horrified American librarians took action.

MANNING: They thought that they should host book drives to collect as many books as they could so that the Americans who might end up facing the German army would arm their minds with ideas.

MONTAGNE: And that - that, by the way, is sort of how they put it, arm their minds.

MANNING: Exactly.

MONTAGNE: Well-intentioned though they were, results of those book drives were mixed, attracting titles like, "How To Knit" and "Theology In 1870." So the focus switched to designing and printing books soldiers actually wanted to read - no easy task since these armed services editions had to be battlefield ready.

MANNING: They're about the side of a smart phone. And they were tucked into the pockets of uniforms. The paper that they were printed on was about the strength of newsprint. And so it was believed that each book would probably withstand about six readings before it would start to fall into pieces.

MONTAGNE: Although, from what you write, it sounds like each book endured many more than six readings.

MANNING: They did. There are actually reports of some books having waiting lists of 30 guys who wanted to read a certain book.

MONTAGNE: And one of their all-time favorites, a bittersweet tale about a young girl growing up poor but loved in early 1900s New York, "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn."

MANNING: This book made them think of home. Men who never set foot in Brooklyn wrote to Betty Smith, the author of "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn," to say that they felt like they were reading about their hometown.

MONTAGNE: Another book along those lines, with a title I think maybe nobody has ever heard of, called "Chicken Every Sunday," and why was that so popular?

MANNING: The book tells the story of a young girl who grew up in a boarding house where her mother entertained all sorts of zany characters and each night fed them mouthwatering dinners. And so as men were stationed around the world, eating rations out of cans, to read these stories about these wonderful dinners made them think of their own mothers and the meals that they used to eat at home. It gave them a trip back home basically. One man said it was like taking a leave.

MONTAGNE: These were, many of them, very young men. And in the case of other popular books - how can I put this? - they were popular for - for a specific reason. And that had to do with the steamy sex scenes - steamy for the day, anyway.

MANNING: That's right. Many men wrote in saying, we would like to read books like "Strange Fruit," by Lillian Smith because, as one man said, this book has sex scenes and a lot of them.

MONTAGNE: But it also had quite a solid story about interracial romance and some difficult questions of the time. The other book that you write about, "Forever Amber," seems much more like a romance novel as we would know it.

MANNING: Yes, that was more of a romance novel. And actually, some of the people that were in charge of selecting the books expressed concern about sending what they called trashy books to soldiers and sailors who were fighting at war. And so top publishers in the United States were presented with the question of whether they should be sending trashy books to American troops. And the publishers said yes. They said, if the men want to read trashy novels, then let's send them trashy novels.

MONTAGNE: (Laughter). Well, you also quote from letters throughout the book. And I wonder if you would read one of them for us. It is from a Marine who wrote to author the Betty Smith after reading "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn." He was touched deeply by it.

MANNING: Sure. (Reading) Were you ever so upset emotionally that you had to tell someone about it, to sit down and write it out? That is how I feel now. You see, I am a 20-year-old, but I feel twice that age. I went through hell in two years of combat overseas.

MONTAGNE: And he goes on to write about - and I'm quoting his letter - "carrying a stretcher from which my buddy's life dripped away in precious blood," And how he, as he put it, "felt sure that I was no longer capable of loving anything or anybody." This book, "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn," it really affected him.

MANNING: Yes. He talks about how he went around for two years with a dead heart. And he was hospitalized with malaria. He asked a nurse for a book because he was bored and had nothing else to do. She happened to give him a copy of "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn." And the book just changed his entire outlook. It made him laugh. It made him cry. And he said even though a battle-hardened Marine usually doesn't cry, he was proud of his tears because it proved that he was human again. He closed the letter saying that he didn't think he'd be able to sleep through the night if he hadn't thanked the woman who caused him to live again.

MONTAGNE: Molly Guptill Manning, thank you very much.

MANNING: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: She is the author of the history "When Books Went To War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.