Tina Jordan
January 07, 2015 AT 05:00 AM EST

When Books Went to War

Current Status
In Season
Molly Guptill Manning
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

We gave it an A

Did you know that during WWII, the U.S. War Department and most major New York publishers banded together to create a line of wallet-size paperbacks that could fit in a soldier’s breast or pants pocket? The initiative, which started out small, eventually grew to 120 million copies of some 1,200 titles — novels, science books, humor collections, histories, biographies, and more. It was a huge hit with the troops, for whom books were often the only source of entertainment. One soldier told A.J. Liebling, then the war correspondent for The New Yorker, ”These little books are a great thing. They take you away.” The GIs, sailors, and airmen scrapped over the most popular titles when shipments arrived at the PX. They could not get enough of the potboiler Forever Amber, likely because of the sex scenes; Rosemary Taylor’s Chicken Every Sunday, which made them nostalgic for their mothers’ home cooking; and Katherine Anne Porter’s haunting short stories, with their stark renderings of love and loss. The men peppered Betty Smith, the author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, with some 1,500 letters a year (she answered almost all of them). And they loved The Great Gatsby so much that critics, who had more or less ignored the novel since its 1925 publication, took another look.

When Books Went to War may be a slim read, but it packs a wallop. Whether or not you’re a book lover, you’ll be moved by the impeccably researched tale. Manning not only illuminates a dusty slice of WWII history that most of us know nothing about but also reminds us, in the digital era of movies and TV, just how powerfully literature once figured in people’s lives. A

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