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Books in World War II

Books in World War II

"Soldiers at Camp Robinson, Arkansas, trying to get books from the Service Club Library. Although the library has 5000 books, it is badly in need of more. The average circulation runs about 200 to 300 books per day, with a record of 525 in one day. Miss Maurine Doores is the librarian." January 22, 1942. (Signal Corps Photo #162-42-79 by Weber, 162nd Signal Photographic Company.)

“Soldiers at Camp Robinson, Arkansas, trying to get books from the Service Club Library. Although the library has 5000 books, it is badly in need of more. The average circulation runs about 200 to 300 books per day, with a record of 525 in one day. Miss Maurine Doores is the librarian.” January 22, 1942. (Signal Corps Photo #162-42-79 by Weber, 162nd Signal Photographic Company.)

When the United States entered World War II in 1941, the average American soldier had an eleventh-grade education and didn’t read for pleasure. Hardback books cost $2, expensive considering the average yearly wages of about $2000.

Pocket Books had begun publishing the first mass market paperback books in the United States in July 1939 for only 25¢, but as of 1939, under 200,000 paperbacks were published each year.

Book Burnings

US poster, 1943

US poster, 1943

When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, massive book burnings were held, destroying millions of books by authors who were Jewish, who spoke out against the Nazis, or who had opposing political ideas. And as the Nazis conquered other countries, they burned and confiscated books as well. In all, the Nazis are believed to have destroyed 100 million books.

This censorship and destruction struck deep at the heart of those in the western democracies and reminded them that books and ideas were vital to freedom.

Servicemen Need Books

Soldiers Reading at Camp Forrest Library, Tullahoma, TN, 13 Feb 1942 (US Army Signal Corps)

Soldiers Reading at Camp Forrest Library, Tullahoma, TN, 13 Feb 1942 (US Army Signal Corps)

Boredom kills morale, so the US armed forces provided libraries at training camps and bases. Servicemen were often too exhausted from a day of training to engage in sports, so many frequented the libraries and discovered the joy of a good book.

Poster from the US Victory Book Campaign, 1942-43

Poster from the US Victory Book Campaign, 1942-43

The US Army wanted to have one book per enlisted man. But when the US instituted the peacetime draft in 1940, men flooded the training camps – and their libraries. Local communities held drives to supply the libraries, but it wasn’t enough.

Victory Book Campaign

Poster for the US Victory Book Campaign, 1943

Poster for the US Victory Book Campaign, 1943

Responding to this need, the American Library Association, working with the USO and the American Red Cross, founded the National Defense Book Campaign in November 1941. The following month, after Pearl Harbor, the name was changed to the Victory Book Campaign.

American Red Cross volunteers collect books for the Victory Book Campaign in World War II (US Army Center of Military History)

American Red Cross volunteers collect books for the Victory Book Campaign in World War II (US Army Center of Military History)

The first book drive started January 12, 1942. Throughout the nation, people were urged to donate used books for the soldiers. Various groups collected the books, including the Red Cross, Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts. Local libraries sorted the books, which were then sent to Army and Navy camps.

Poster for the US Victory Book Campaign, 1942-43

Poster for the US Victory Book Campaign, 1942-43

While well intentioned, the program had some problems. First, about one-third of the donated books were unusable—worn-out books, children’s books, or titles of little interest to young men. Second, the typical hardback book was heavy and large. Shipping was expensive and used valuable cargo space needed for war materiel, and the books were too unwieldy for the men to carry into combat. Third, by 1943, donations dropped as the supply of excess books decreased.

In May 1943, the Army and Navy declared Victory Book Campaign books were no longer needed, and the program was shut down at the end of the year. Still, the campaign collected 18 million books, 11 million of which were distributed.

Armed Services Editions

Armed Services Edition of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, in Library of Congress Rare Books and Special Collections Division (Library of Congress, photo by Shawn Miller)

Armed Services Edition of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, in Library of Congress Rare Books and Special Collections Division (Library of Congress, photo by Shawn Miller)

In March 1943, the Council on Books in Wartime was founded by 70 representatives of publishing houses. Working with the armed services, they came up with an ingenious—and generous—plan.

Publishers allowed their books to be published in special Armed Services Editions, accepting only 1¢ royalty per volume, to be split between the publisher and the author.

The Armed Services Editions were printed on thin paper with small font, in a size small enough to fit into a uniform trouser pocket. These thin paperbacks were designed to be passed around between servicemen and eventually discarded.

Armed Services Edition of The Story of George Gershwin by David Ewen, in Library of Congress Rare Books and Special Collections Division (Library of Congress, photo by Shawn Miller)

Armed Services Edition of The Story of George Gershwin by David Ewen, in Library of Congress Rare Books and Special Collections Division (Library of Congress, photo by Shawn Miller)

The Council chose titles in a variety of genres—“dime store” cowboy and detective novels, high literature, history, biography, poetry, humor, and more. The concept was to entertain and to educate, and the Council did not shy away from controversial titles—although they did not publish any that might give “comfort to the enemy.”

Starting in September 1943, thirty Armed Service Edition titles were published each month, with 50,000 copies of each title. Both the quantity of titles and the print runs increased during the war due to high demand.

An Army of Readers

Servicemen bound for Guadalcanal grab books as they board. (U.S. Navy)

Servicemen bound for Guadalcanal grab books as they board. (U.S. Navy)

Men carried the Armed Services Editions into battle, from Omaha Beach to Iwo Jima to Okinawa. They read them to their buddies in their ship’s hammocks. They read by the light of artillery shells at night.

The men found books inspired them, reminding them of why they fought. Books distracted them from the horrors and rigors and boredom of military life. And books taught them new things and opened new doors and windows.

By the time the Armed Services Editions program ended in 1947, 123 million books had been published.

A Nation of Readers

US poster, WWII

US poster, WWII

There was a severe paper shortage in the US from 1943-45 – the publishing industry was restricted to 37.5% of the paper they’d used in 1939. Even so, the number of books published actually increased during the war due to the rise of paperbacks. By 1943, over 40 million paperbacks were being published a year!

With the Victory Book Campaign and the Armed Services Editions and the inexpensive paperbacks, a new generation of readers had been created. Servicemen who’d never considered themselves readers had found that they could read history and poetry—and like it. Books were no longer only for the rich, but for everyone, democracy in action.

After the war, many of the soldiers and sailors and airmen went to college on the GI Bill, inspired and encouraged by the books they’d read—and by realizing they did in fact enjoy reading.

The motto “Books are weapons in the war of ideas” was proven correct. In the end, generosity and freedom triumphed over destruction and censorship, and the whole world benefited.

Resources:

Manning, Molly Guptill. When Books Went to War. New York: Mariner Books, 2014.

Appelbaum, Yoni. “Publishers Gave Away 122,951,031 Books During World War II.” The Atlantic, 10 September 1941. Accessed 5 March 2020.

Allen, Erin. “Books in Action: The Armed Services Editions.” Library of Congress blog, 30 September 2015. Accessed 5 March 2020.

Brozyna, Andrew. “The Victory Book Campaign.” On the Books for Victory website, 11 June 2012. Accessed 12 June 2012. (Site no longer active).

34 Responses to “Books in World War II”

  1. Tish

    I love reading books on World War I and II Love your books.

  2. Natalya Lakhno

    Thank you for participating! Blessings!

  3. Karen

    Very interesting; didn’t know this about the soldiers. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Jennifer MacDonald

    Absolutely loved this series! I can’t wait to read others ❤️

  5. Mimi

    Ok, those armed services editions are incredible! Oh to be able to get my hands on one (or a bunch) would be amazing!!

  6. Becky D.

    Wow!! I knew about the Nazis burning tons of books, but never about the book drives and encouragement in America. I love the partnership that was made directly with the publishers. Fascinating!! Thanks for sharing! 🥰📚

  7. Helen

    Love to read books about WWI and WWII. My grandfather was a WWI vet. Look forward to reading your books. Thanks for sharing interesting info about military reading and power of books .

  8. Leanne Watkins

    I didn’t know any of this – it’s inspiring and interesting. Sarah thank you for being my favorite WWII buff and constantly educating me and making me smile in awe.

  9. Jarm Del Boccio

    Thanks for this wonderful summary of this fascinating time period! I read the book, When Books Went to War, and I look forward to The Land Beneath Us!

  10. Kelly

    Thank you for sharing about the books for soldiers. So interesting! It makes me realize how much I take books for granted.

  11. Melinda M

    thanks for being part of this. I am enjoying

  12. Caryl Kane

    Sarah, Thank you for sharing this fascinating post! Your books make history come alive!

  13. Patrice Doten

    Fascinating post! Very inspiring. #booklove

  14. Karen VanAntwerpen

    Thank you for all the input you have given us! Your book looks like a wonderful read! I have added it to my “want to read” list.

  15. Claire Johnson

    I just finished the featured novel, The Land Beneath Us. I was so enthralled by it and was discussing it with my husband, a WWII enthusiast. We started watching Band of Brothers series. He had read much on D day so he gave as running commentary. The entire series gave me a small edge on his knowlege. I truly loved this series.

  16. Stephanie Ludwig

    What an interesting slice of history I never knew about! I love that this made readers out of so many men who didn’t consider themselves as such. Thanks for sharing this blog post, and I look forward to reading about it in The Lane Beneath Us at some point.

  17. Gabrielle

    I already bought and read this book, so I’m not entering to win. I’ve read “When Books Went to War” and “The Librarian of Auschwitz” recently, and it’s a great realization how important books are, not just for fun, but for freedom of thought, education, etc. etc. I love all of your books, but, being a booklover and library employee, I especially enjoyed seeing the library/book aspect of the war in this book.

  18. Carissa

    Interesting information that as a library assistant I loved. Your Sunrise at Normandy series got me reading WWII fiction.

  19. Lisa Hudson

    Your Sunrise at Normandy Series has been one of my favorite series of all time! I always look forward to your releases because I know I will be GUARANTEED an exciting, entertaining and heartfelt reading experience!

  20. Jennifer K

    I always appreciate all the research you do and how it shows up in your stories!!!

  21. Lisa Harness

    Love reading this era. Thanks for the hunt.

  22. Stephanie Stoll

    That tidbit of history was fascinating! I had no idea! That’s why I enjoy reading historical fiction. It makes me want to research the real history of the story’s time!

  23. Sabrina

    I didn’t know all that stuff about books in World War II! I love history and reading and work at a library, so I enjoy learning about things like this.

  24. Teri DiVincenzo

    I love reading about WWII! We didn’t really learn much about it in high school and it’s so interesting to absorb how the culture changed during that time. Thanks for being part of the scavenger hunt!

  25. Rose Blackard

    Love looks about World war II oh, and I love audiobooks !