Monday, December 11, 2017

When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning

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.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Birding Without Borders by Noah Strycker

Why I Read It: I'm a birder.

Summary: One man conquers the world, breaking the record for the most bird species seen globally in a single year.

My Thoughts: There are a lot of birders out there. In fact, there are more than you know. It's a pastime that is now global in dimension, and it's spoken in a language all its own. And I don't mean Latin, but that helps, for sure.

Birders understand the passions of other birders, for the most part. As with any hobby, there are extremists. But for the most part, when a visiting birder arranges with a local to find something he or she has never seen before, it's met with great enthusiasm.

Strycker set out to break a record, but he did it in a way that few others have done before, with grace and thankfulness at every stop along the way. In the end, he got his record, well knowing that there were already plans afoot by someone else to break it the following year. He makes numerous new friends around the globe, captures the wide range of bird conservation themes impacting the world today and proves that the widest of gaps - linguistic, cultural, political - can be bridged by open minds.

I've completed similar challenges, on much smaller scales. I've forced myself to find a new nature trail to walk every day for a year. I've taken a 30-minute nature walk in each of Massachusetts' 351 cities and towns in a single year. And I've read 50,000 tombstones in a year to determine what my own epitaph should be. Along the way, I've recorded every bird I've seen as part of the exploration experience.

I can tell you that Strycker's stories of planning for his journey mirrored mine, with the spreadsheets, route-making, etc. And I can tell you that the calendrical sensations are the same. Getting out of the gate there is a sense that the world is before you, and in Strycker's case, that was an absolute truth. There is a desire to start off right, making the first step symbolic. He starts in Antarctica, at the very bottom of the world. I had no such luck with my Massachusetts year. I planned to start somewhere symbolic, like Plymouth Rock, but a friend called and asked for help with a Christmas Bird Count. At sunrise on January 1 I was in a manure field in a small farming town. You want your first bird to be special, not common in any way. He started with a Cape Petrel, something most of us will never see. In my new trails year, bird #1 was a House Sparrow, and bird #100 was a Fish Crow. (Sigh).

By the end of the year, the journey is the story, and once the deadline is in sight, it's time to get reflective and philosophical. If the goal is met, there's a serenity to knowing that it's all over, that the next day you can get up and do whatever you want. Usually, that means considering what the next challenge should be.

Strycker did it right. Now that he's found 6,000 of the world's recognized 10,000 or so, it'll be interesting to see if he opts to take a second year to find the balance. But whatever he does, he'll be sure to continue to spread goodwill wherever he goes.