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Being in the military, whether during peace or war, can be incredibly boring.
If you’ve ever served or been around the military, you will know that waiting takes up a lot more of your time than you’ve ever imagined. Imagine adding that to the stress of actual battle, and you can imagine how important some kind of mental escape becomes.
During World War 2, book publishers worked with the U.S. Armed Forces to produce books designed for soldiers and sailors to carry with them so they could mentally escape by reading a bit whenever they had a few minutes. The books were designed and printed on the thinnest paper possible on a size that would fit into uniform pockets, and were even specially designed to be easy to hold in one hand and read in trying conditions (poor light, movement, etc.).
That way, whenever a soldier had a few minutes, he could pull his book out of his pocket and read, which was an ideal way to alleviate stress and get a few moments’ respite from his surroundings.
A happy side effect of this operation is growth of the paperback industry, which meant, over time, that more titles were available to more people! Apparently, there was a battle between the “paperback” and “hardback” supporters that is similar to the (silly) battle over digital and print books that some people try to stir up today.
The series sent an amazing variety of books to the troops, and the editions were almost always complete; they were not condensed or edited. Americans were well aware of the book burnings and censorship that was happening in Germany, so of course it was hypocritical to censor what went to the American troops. If a book was deemed unsuitable because of its content being offensive to certain groups (such as a ally or a religious persuasion), it wouldn’t be used rather than excising passages, but regardless, the point of the program was to include as wide a range of books as possible to appeal to every taste rather than trying to indoctrinate the troops by limiting options.
The one caveat is that the books were universally chosen to appeal to male tastes, as the few females who were outside of the U.S. were in noncombatant roles and had access to stationary libraries. These books were published with the intention of sending them right into battle as morale boosters.
While there were many books intended for all kinds of interests, from the Westerns and adventure stories you would expect, to compilations of jokes and cartoons, to technical scientific texts, 4 out of the 5 most popular titles that are still in print were written by women (I omitted the one that is no longer in print) and feature female protagonists.
1. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, is about the life of a reserved bookworm named Francie and her teenage years in Brooklyn, New York. Her father is an alcholohic and her mother struggles to support the family in their immigrant neighbhorhood in the years leading up to World War 1.
This book was the most popular book in the entire program because it reminded the men of being at home with their families.
I wonder if Francie’s struggles reminds them of the importance of sticking together as a family (or nation?) and being true to who you are, which is a theme of several of these books. The Nolan family seems to be out of options at several points during the story, but something always comes along to pull them through.
If you’ve read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and loved it, check out this book by Betty Smith you will love just as much!
2. Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor
If you know Forever Amber, you know that Amber has a lot of sex, so the fact that the young men liked it might not be that surprising to you, but I think there’s more to it than that. I’m rereading it myself, and first, Amber has a lot of sex, but the sex is barely described. What probably made it seem shocking when it was published is her adventurous nature and also that she stays true to herself throughout the book. At this reading, I admire her for her devotion to the man she loves even when he won’t give her the relationship she wants.
I think she’s crazy, but I know that takes guts.
I’m sure the people fighting the war had to constantly battle their assumptions about the world as they came into conflict with new situations and sort out who they really were from who they thought they were.
3. Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith
Like Forever Amber, Strange Fruit has some titillating scenes, but it is better known for its literary merit. It’s also the story of an interracial marriage (check) that resulted in a biracial child, which remember, was still illegal in some parts of the United States in the 1940’s.
Again, the story must have meant more to the men than sex; many of them were getting to know all kinds of people, both American and internationals, that they had never met before, and obviously, some of their assumptions were being challenged.
4. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Would you believe that The Great Gatsby was a flop when it was first published? Being chosen for an Armed Forced Edition in 1945 breathed new life into it 20 years after it was published, and it went on to become the classic it is today and a book you probably were assigned in high school.
It’s easy to forget that beneath all the gilded glitz and glamour, The Great Gatsby is about two men (Nick and Gatsby) who had both had their lives upended and their identities brought into question by their service in World War 1.
The Great Gatsby went into the public domain in 2021, so many retellings and spin offs are hitting the market. One of the first, Nick, emphasizes the World War 1 experiences of Gatsby’s narrator.
You can also find a free digital copy of The Great Gatsby here, or other titles by F. Scott Fitzgerald here, at Project Gutenberg. For directions on getting files from Project Gutenberg to your Kindle (or other e-reading app), click here.
5. The Selected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
The men enjoyed Porter’s stories because her expression of deep emotions helped them connect with their own feelings that they felt they couldn’t express to anyone directly.
More About How Books Helped the World War II War Effort
The entire story of the American Service Edition produced during and after World War 2 is told in When Books Went To War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning.