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An American serviceman takes respite with an Armed Services Editions book in what remained of his flooded “camp” in New Guinea.
An American serviceman takes respite with an Armed Services Editions book in what remained of his flooded “camp” in New Guinea. Australian War Memorial

Anyone reading a book review is well aware of the power of books to affect lives on a variety of levels, but many readers may not know that during World War II, more than 120 million free books were distributed to American soldiers around the world, providing much-needed entertainment and escape from the chaos surrounding them.

While researching her first book in the archives of Charles Scribner’s Sons publishing company, Molly Guptill Manning discovered the story of the Armed Services Editions, a service that delivered millions of easy-to-carry paperbacks to troops desperately seeking solace amidst the “days and weeks of transport, boredom, and fear.” In “When Books Went to War,’’ Manning unfurls the history of this unprecedented project.

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As is the case with most issues regarding books and the dissemination of information, the author astutely notes, librarians were among the first to take up the cause, understanding that books would be vital to the war effort, “not only . . . improving morale but easing adjustment and averting the onset of psychoneurotic breakdowns.”

Raymond L. Trautman was the chief of the Library Section of the US Army, working to increase both the quantity and quality of books available for soldiers. Following in his footsteps, Althea Warren, from the Los Angeles Public Library, helped to launch the ALA’s National Book Defense Campaign, which sought to collect 10 million books in 1942.

Eventually, the NBDC was renamed the Victory Book Campaign, which successfully collected books from across the country but also faced opposition from politicians who felt the country should focus on more pressing needs. Furthermore, even as the books poured in, hundreds of thousands were discarded because they weren’t suited for young soldiers — “How to Knit” and “Theology in 1870” were unlikely to gain favor among stressed, lonely soldiers.

Despite setbacks and budgetary restrictions, however, the efforts of Warren and her colleagues led to the creation of the Council on Books in Wartime, a panel of publishing professionals and editors who met to determine which books were to be rated “Imperative” so available for widespread distribution to troops across the globe.

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With the assistance of a host of publishers, including Pocket Books, “the first American publishing company to mass-produce paperbacks,” the council developed the Armed Services Editions model, which produced smaller, more affordably manufactured paperbacks that could be tucked in a pocket or folded inside a backpack. Many books gained significant traction from this exposure, including “The Great Gatsby,” but the most popular of all proved to be Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”

The reception across the globe was unquestionably positive, as Manning’s well-incorporated firsthand testimonies demonstrate. In fact, when asked to shed weight from their packs, many soldiers chose to discard gas masks and other battlefield essentials rather than their paperbacks.

Throughout the book, the author successfully interweaves quotes from the letters soldiers sent home and to their favorite writers — though she is guilty of occasional repetition and heavy-handed reminders of the importance of books to the troops’ daily lives. In one passage, a sailor expresses the sense of attachment to the books, saying, “To heave one in the garbage can is tantamount to striking your grandmother.” It’s a fitting, well-rendered sentiment, but Manning recycles the same quote later in the book.

Nonetheless, aside from repetition and a potted history of Germany’s rise between the wars, especially regarding its astonishingly successful propaganda campaign and extensive burning of books, Manning is a capable writer who ably resurrects the important story of the ASE program, which ended in September 1947 with Ernie Pyle’s “Home Country.” “When Books Went to War” is not only a readable, accessible addition to World War II literature; it’s also a book that will be enjoyed by lovers of books about books.

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Eric Liebetrau, the managing editor and nonfiction editor of Kirkus Reviews, can be reached at eliebetrau@kirkus.com.