Friday, June 19, 2015

When Books Went to War by Molly Guptil Manning

World War II was a war that united the American population like no other. Young men enlisted to serve in the Armed Forces and civilians pitched in by making whatever sacrifices they could make: planting Victory Gardens, living with food and gasoline rationing, turning possessions into scrap (metal, paper, cloth), and donating books for the troops. Unfortunately, the book donation program was not entirely successful. Many titles donated were not of interest to young American men (knitting, theology, and foreign policy, just to name a few of the not terribly enticing subjects.) But an even bigger problem was the size of the books. Before the 1950’s, very few books were published in paperback. The hardcover books were simply too big and bulky for an infantryman to add to his already heavy load of over 60 pounds. A solution was proposed and accepted—small, lightweight books printed especially for the men in the Armed Services. ASEs (Armed Service Editions) were designed. Titles were chosen, printed and distributed to the far corners of the earth. And they were greatly appreciated by men in foxholes, in jungles, in deserts, on ships and in hospitals. Surprisingly perhaps, the most popular title was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. Many soldiers and sailors wrote to her, describing the comfort they found in her story of a Brooklyn family, living an American life much like theirs. Second in popularity was Chicken Every Sunday by Rosemary Taylor, a memoir of life in her mother’s boarding house with many mouth-watering descriptions of good old American food. There were many other popular authors like Ernest Hemingway, Marjorie Rawlings, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, as well as histories, biographies, poetry and numerous other subjects. Many of the service men were readers who took solace in books. Others were introduced to reading for pleasure by the ASEs and returned home with a new interest in literature. Librarians and publishers fought shortages of funds, shortages of paper and, eventually, even censorship to keep the program running and, in the end, they were as victorious as the American Armed Forces.  Anyone reading a blog like this one can appreciate the contribution the ASEs made in the quality of life of the American G.I. When Books Went to War lists all the titles published by the program, year by year. Some of the titles are out of print, but, for the information of the omnivorous and curious reader, many are available in our library system.