It might sound cliché but books can be powerful weapons. It doesn't matter if it's fiction or non-fiction, the ideas they convey can change how people think and even threaten governments. One example is Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, a Russian poet, which was banned by the Soviet government for being critical of the 1917 communist revolution. Last summer I read about it in The Zhivago Affair by Peter Finn which tells how the book ended up being published clandestinely by the CIA and smuggled back into the USSR during the height of the Cold War. (Note: I didn't review it here on my blog because I didn't think it was very good.) Also, when Hitler and the Nazis came to power, they didn't just overrun their enemies, they burned their books. Millions of them were burned in Berlin and other countries because they were seen as subversive to the Nazi ideals. Hitler even wrote his own book and foisted it upon the population to influence what people thought. In many ways it wasn't just a war for the land and the people, it was a war for their minds as well.
Molly Guptill Manning says that some in America took this as a challenge. In her new book, When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II, she says it was seen as a matter of pride that American service men would be able to read what they chose, and early book drives were held to collect books that could be sent to the military. Unfortunately, many of those donations were heavy hardbound books that were impractical for soldiers to carry, and more than a few were so old and outdated as to be useless. In an unprecedented move publishers came together under the Council on Books in Wartime and produced the Armed Services Editions (ASEs) – small, lightweight, and portable copies of bestsellers, classics, biographies, histories, compilations of poetry, and discussions of current events. The books, which could fit easily in pockets and packs, turned out to be extremely popular. Over 123 million(!) were printed and distributed over the course of the war.
This was a very interesting and easy read about a mostly forgotten story of WWII. Manning includes some of the 'fan mail' soldiers sent to the authors and publishers, expressing their gratitude for the books and describing how they were traded and passed around along the front lines. More than one talked about how the books helped to relieve the hours of boredom, but the real impact was that it made so many of those men into life-long learners who came home to re-enter society and universities. The book is kind of a light and entertaining read but it made me want to read some of those ASE books like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
and Chicken Every Sunday. (This book includes a complete list of the books published as ASEs – even The Great Gatsby
was saved from obscurity by the program – as well as a list of many of the authors banned by the Nazis. I received an advance copy from the Amazon Vine program.)