Why I Read It: I was out of reading material after a flight was delayed in Minneapolis, so I picked it up off the rack. And World War II is the literary gift that keeps on giving.
Summary: Millions of servicemen face boredom while waiting, and the United States responds with mountains of books.
My Thoughts: This book has many angles to it, centralizing on the disparity between Nazi Germany and the United States when it came to freedom of thought and expression. Germany burned books, with approximately 100,000,000 books destroyed during the war through public conflagrations and the ravages of combat. It sought to stamp out ideas contrary to its cause, and force a nation to think in one, cohesive direction. The U.S., on the other hand - despite the "banned in Boston" movement alive and well in the 1940s - understood that knowledge is power, that only by understanding how the world truly operates can an individual, or a nation, take part in it productively.
With men pulled from farms, fields, cities, towns and more across America and thrust into life and death situations around the globe, America found that simple, easy-to-carry books were in high demand. At first, the country responded with book drives. Then a council of the country's top publishers created the "Armed Services Edition," pocket sized reproductions of popular books, printed by the hundreds of thousands and shipped to servicemen around the world (note: not to servicewomen, the distinction being made that they were for combatants).
There was one interesting hiccup, though, as prior to the 1944 election Republicans sought a form of censorship in regard to books being shipped overseas to soldiers. With a reported two-thirds of soldiers in the Pacific primed to vote Franklin Delano Roosevelt in for a fourth term as President of the United States, Republicans attempted to block any political references in materials being sent to soldiers anywhere. The language was included in a bill that would make voting easier for deployed servicemen, who barely voted at all in 1943. The idea that a soldier fighting for democracy could not participate in its primary right is , of course, ludicrous. But there was a political war that had to be fought for both soldiers to vote and to enjoy the fruits of the freedom of the press.
One concept made my head spin. As the war ended, many soldiers believed they were writers, and queried publishers in regard to publishing their memoirs of their war experiences. We know which books made it through the process, but what didn't? If World War II was fought today, we would have a much richer genre of books. Paper shortages and the bottom lines of the major publishing houses curtailed the flow. Today with printing on demand, digital books and self-publishing, we would have an avalanche of soldiers' tales. It makes you wonder what wasn't written.
American soldiers were the envy of Allied troops, especially in book-deprived Europe. There is no doubt that because of this program, American forces formed the best read military in the world. And when they came home, their often newfound love of learning led them into their postwar careers, with many thousands passing through college on the way. The greater ramifications of this process, creating an enlightened generation, are probably being felt even today.
Some small acts create major change. In World War II, it was pocket-sized books that changed the face of war for millions of men, keeping home within an arm's reach at all times.