Books: Then and Now

Category: Now

Review: When Books Went To War by Molly Guptill Manning

By: Richard E. Gower

For those who would be turned off by the use of the word War in the title of this book, I urge you to keep an open mind.

Because When Books Went To War has only a little to do with war; that abomination that humanity has not yet managed to relegate to the trash bins of history as abhorrent, untenable and never to be taken up again. It has, however, everything to do with the kernels of inspiration, promise and life force; the Qi within the covers of books that is enfolded like a double helix in the words on their pages.

The quintessence and import of this book are to be found in its subtext. Molly Guptill Manning captures a cupful of its chi in her introduction. A young man of twenty who had survived two years amid the senseless carnage and destruction of battle during World War II, had witnessed friends perish around him and who had believed himself cynically hardened against the world with a “dead heart…and dulled mind,” because of that experience, pours out his heart in a letter to the author of a book he was given in the hospital.

Writing from his sickbed about his emotional response to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, he declares in the letter to Betty Smith: “…I’ll never be able to explain to you the gratitude and love that fill my heart in appreciation of what your book means to me.” And in closing he says to her: “I don’t think I would have been able to sleep this night unless I bared my heart to the person who caused it to live again.”

And that goes to the nub of When Books Went To War. The book is like a particularly fine chocolate truffle with a sweet cherry centre, in that there is as much to be found within, as without.

The story is compelling in itself. It takes readers through an ugly period in recent history (recent being the last hundred years) that has now mostly faded from public consciousness. And it highlights events that almost anyone would see as ominous harbingers of potential outrages yet to come, even without the benefit of hindsight.

Mass organized book burnings took place in Berlin in 1933, ostensibly orchestrated by zealous students but with the full approval of the Nazi government that had just come to power in Germany. The spectacle was broadcast live over radio and filmed to be viewed in theatres with Nazi propaganda commentary “explaining” that the books were harmful and were destroyed because they “eroded German values.” That set the stage for the horror show that followed.

When Books Went To War begins with the Berlin book burning and goes on to chronicle the response to this act by people in countries all around the world. It then follows a path to the conflagration that is WW II and focuses on the efforts by the citizenry and the government of the United States to get books to American troops to give them comfort and to keep them in touch with free world ideals.

Molly Guptill Manning’s detailed research covers the first book drives organized by librarians across the country, the decision by the American government to fund the printing and distribution of millions of copies of Armed Services Editions (ASEs) – small paperbacks that would fit in a uniform pocket – and the subsequent struggles with the same government due to its concurrent policy of censorship during that period, a blatant hypocrisy and contradiction of principle that staggers the imagination still today.

The destruction of books and persecution of intellectuals by authorities for the purpose of suppressing dissent did not begin with Nazi Germany as the practice can be traced back more than two thousand years. The Nazis however were precisely organized and relentlessly obsessive about it and turned it into an industry. As the burnings spread throughout Germany, they also began to initiate bans on certain books and the works of certain authors.

An appendix of the book includes a list of authors whose works were banned. It reads like the who’s who of literature, philosophy, politics and science that it is. Jack London, Erich Maria Remarque, Benedict Spinoza, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, C.G. Jung, Upton Sinclair, John Reed, Karl Marx, Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Mann and Helen Keller are only a few of the names in the appendix and “…a fraction of the ten thousand whose books were banned in Germany and all German-occupied countries during WW II.”

By 1938 Nazi policies had “… moved from books to people.” and in 1939 Hitler declared war on Poland, which was the catalyst for WW II. The Nazi atrocities that followed are well known to every fifth-grade student today, but notwithstanding that, the book burnings and bannings alone had a profound effect on a great many people and set up a backlash in some who went on to influence future generations themselves.

Ray Bradbury, one of the most notable American writers of the past century, was born in 1920 and died in 2012. As a youth, he was horrified by the desecration of books in Germany before the war and the spectacle remained with him for much of his life, as did a distrust and contempt of what he saw as state overreach. Bradbury indicated that he wrote Fahrenheit 451 (one of his most well-known and influential works) because of his fears that the political climate of the United States during the infamous McCarthy era might actually lead to book burning.

There are lessons to be learned from When Books Went To War. It tells a remarkable story. The selection of volumes listed in the second appendix that were printed as ASEs will have you heading to the library with a large empty book bag. But for hard-core bibliophiles, the sweet cherry essence and flavour at the centre is in the ratified realization that books have within them the power to sway emotions, change people and inspire generations. Books are indomitable.

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