From Homer to Gaza, the History of Books in Wartime

At Christmas, 1939, a few months into the new World War, London bookshops were very busy. The war was bringing in a public eager to learn about weapons, planes, and the nature of the country that was once again the enemy. Confidence was high and curiosity, as much as fear, prevailed. Among recent titles, “I Married a German” had gone through five editions, and the Lewis Carroll-inspired illustrated satire “Adolf in Blunderland”—featuring Hitler as a mustachioed child and a Jewish mouse who has been in a concentration camp—sold out in days. Publishers, proudly demonstrating how different the English were from the book-burning Germans, had issued a newly translated version of “Mein Kampf,” unabridged, which was selling fast; royalties were diverted to the Red Cross, which sent books to British prisoners of war. It was only the next summer, after the wholly unexpected collapse of France, when bombs began to fall and politicians warned that a German invasion was imminent—when even Churchill questioned “if this long island story of ours is to end at last”—that people confessed they were finding it difficult to read.

But not impossible. “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Gone with the Wind”: American stories of earlier wars became big best-sellers as this war went on. When bombs forced thousands of Londoners to shelter in the city’s underground train stations, small libraries were often installed to boost spirits. One of the most famous photographs of wartime London shows a group of calmly composed men, in hats, examining books on the miraculously intact shelves of a Kensington mansion’s bombed-out library. The photograph was almost certainly posed, as Andrew Pettegree, a prolific British expert on the history of books, points out in “The Book at War” (Basic), but it was a true image of the way that books were used in catastrophic times: as solace and inspiration, as symbols of resistance against barbarism and of a centuries-old culture that remained an honored trust.

The Germans, once so learned and now so desperately frightened of books, understood this, too. The most fearful reminder of the planned invasion that did not happen—thanks largely to the unforeseen resilience of the Royal Air Force—is a volume, secretly prepared in 1940, titled “Informationsheft GrossBritannien” (later translated as “Invasion 1940”). Produced by the S.S., it was a closely researched compendium of basic information about Britain’s geography, economy, politics, and so on, which would be useful to an occupation regime. This disquietingly assured handbook concluded with a “Special Wanted List” of two thousand eight hundred and twenty British subjects and foreign residents who were to be arrested as soon as the Nazis took power. Among the politicians, journalists, Jews, and others on the list were a number of outstanding writers, including E. M. Forster, Rebecca West, Noël Coward, and Virginia Woolf. None could have known that their names were there, although some assumed that they would be targeted. Woolf’s friend and sometime lover Vita Sackville-West and Vita’s husband, Harold Nicolson (a government official who was on the list), both carried poison pills for the day the Germans landed.

To study books is to take on a limitless task, since there is no end to the subjects that books contain. The academic field of book history strives to keep the material facts of the book as an object—paper (or parchment, or papyrus), typography, printing history—in steady focus. Inevitably, though, such sturdy facts prove inseparable from the immaterial life that these strange objects preserve, and from the larger histories into which books are inescapably bound. Readers have long taken pleasure in books about books, from “The Name of the Rose” to “The Swerve” or “84, Charing Cross Road.” And at a time when the continued existence of print culture is in question, books about the contributions that books have made to our lives have a special poignance, akin to an image Pettegree conjures of an American G.I. with a worn paperback jutting from his pocket.

The book in wartime is a vast subject, and Pettegree wisely restricts his scope. The earliest conflict he examines is the American Civil War, which he uses largely to address Harriet Beecher Stowe’s landmark anti-slavery novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” published in 1852 and renowned for turning weeping readers into up-in-arms abolitionists. Frederick Douglass described its impact as “amazing, instantaneous, and universal,” and President Lincoln, when introduced to its author, in 1862, reportedly called her “the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” Pettegree, like many others, assumes this famous comment to be apocryphal. He also has doubts about the novel’s actual influence on events, contending that the abolitionist sentiments Stowe aroused had little effect on the war and didn’t lead Union soldiers to enlist.

Even Lincoln didn’t believe that his soldiers would take up arms to defeat slavery, rather than to preserve the Union—that’s one reason he hesitated over emancipation—and the surviving letters of Union soldiers bear this out. It should be noted, though, that many became abolitionists as the war went on, influenced by what they saw of slavery in the South and by the brave performance of Black soldiers. Sadly, however, there seems to be merit to Pettegree’s claim that a major ramification of Stowe’s novel was a Southern backlash. Copies of the book were burned in public, and a spate of “anti-Tom” novels appeared, depicting slavery as a benign system and rebutting Stowe’s harsh portrait of Southern life.

A full half century after Stowe’s book was published, a stage production of her story so outraged a North Carolina Baptist minister named Thomas Dixon, Jr., that he wrote what became the most influential anti-Tom novel of all, “The Clansman.” Published in 1905, it told of bestial Black rapists and of white avengers from the noble Ku Klux Klan, offering ostensible justification for the resegregation then occurring under Jim Crow laws. By the time Dixon was writing, the Klan had been extinct for decades, but his novel—adapted as D. W. Griffith’s film “The Birth of a Nation”—helped revive it. This monstrous cinematic masterpiece was released in 1915, and the Klan reëstablished itself as a newly vindictive force of terror the same year. Astonishingly, the burning cross set high on Stone Mountain, in Georgia, the night it was reborn—a symbol that cut deep into the nation’s psyche for many years—derived not from the historic Klan but from Dixon’s novel.

“The Book at War” extends to the present, but Pettegree writes most and best on the Second World War. (He mentions that his father was an officer in the Royal Air Force.) Here, he considers a wide range of printed materials: maps, pamphlets, scientific periodicals. For example, a scientist working for British intelligence was able to discern, just by reading the physics journal Physikalische Zeitschrift, that, as of 1941, the Nazis had not committed the resources needed to make an atom bomb. The journal listed physics lecture courses being offered in German universities, and it turned out that the best physicists remaining in Germany (after Jews had been fired) were scattered across the country teaching. Clearly, no concerted Nazi effort was under way. If developing a bomb was so hard for their own scientists, the Nazis appear to have reasoned, how could the degenerate Allies ever do it? As a result, the Manhattan Project, that enormous concerted Allied effort, benefitted from no fewer than eleven articles about declassified German research on atomic fission that were openly published in physics journals in 1942 and 1943.

“Once you’ve warmed up, you’re going to have to go back to your own seat.”

Cartoon by Frank Cotham

“In this war, we know, books are weapons,” President Roosevelt said in 1942. A decade before, when Nazi book burnings took place, more than a hundred thousand people across the United States had marched in protest. Now the U.S. Office of War Information issued a poster that framed a photograph of a book burning with the words “THE NAZIS BURNED THESE BOOKS . . . but free Americans CAN STILL READ THEM.” In 1943, American publishers began to produce Armed Services Editions, for soldiers overseas—millions of books that provided edification, amusement, even bouts of peace. These editions were small in format and printed on lightweight paper, designed so that they could fit in a serviceman’s pocket and withstand some half a dozen readings, as soldiers passed them on. (There is an entire book about this series, Molly Guptill Manning’s “When Books Went to War.”) Thirty titles were sent out to start, fifty thousand copies of each. Hundreds of works were eventually added, and the number of copies tripled: fiction, classics, biographies, humor, history, mystery, science, plays, poetry. Bundles of books were flown to the Anzio beachhead, in Italy, dropped by parachute on remote Pacific islands, and stockpiled in warehouses in the spring of 1944, so that they could be shipped to the staging grounds for D Day.

“Oliver Twist.” “The Grapes of Wrath.” Biographies of George Gershwin and Ben Franklin. Westerns by Zane Grey. Virginia Woolf (“The Years”). Ogden Nash. Plato’s Republic (“a new version in basic English”). “The Fireside Book of Dog Stories.” Sexy novels did especially well, and the most popular book of all seems to have been “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” whose author, Betty Smith, estimated that she received some fifteen hundred letters from soldiers a year. “I was thinking about that book even under pretty intense fire,” one soldier wrote. Another, expressing perhaps better than anyone the appeal of books in wartime, wrote, “I can’t explain the emotional reaction that took place in this dead heart of mine.”

It’s an ancient belief that the gods send us sorrows, including wars, so that we will have stories to tell: “I sing of arms and the man.” We know who we are through the stories we share. Tell someone your favorite book—one about, say, an impoverished child growing up in a Brooklyn tenement, striving for education—and you tell them something about yourself. In the years that followed the September 11th attacks, a selection of books was made available to the inmates in the military prison at Guantánamo, which has held nearly eight hundred Muslim men and boys since 2002. The books were kept in a trailer and read by prisoners in their cells.

In 2010, there was a sentencing hearing for a Toronto-born inmate, Omar Khadr, who was partly raised in Pakistan and was arrested in Afghanistan in 2002, at the age of fifteen. A psychiatrist testifying for the prosecution called Khadr a dangerous jihadist who had spent much of his eight years at Guantánamo memorizing the Quran. The defense attorney countered by demanding a full list of the books that Khadr had asked to read: Barack Obama’s “Dreams from My Father,” Nelson Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom,” Ishmael Beah’s “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier,” novels by Stephenie Meyer, John Grisham, and Danielle Steel. Not the list one might expect for a jihadist. The books were not the reason that Khadr was transferred to a Canadian prison, in 2012, and released a few years later, ultimately obtaining a formal apology from the Canadian government and a large cash settlement. But they were an early sign, duly covered in the press, that he was not the person his jailers claimed. The hearing was a strangely literal example of the idea that books, even in the darkest prison, can set you free.

The foundational book in the Western tradition, the Iliad, is a book of war—of the anger of Achilles and of the bloody victory over Troy that took ten years. It not only marked the great turn from oral recitation to writing but was also, as papyrus fragments show, the most read Greek book in ancient times. The Spanish classicist Irene Vallejo writes in her eclectic and often enchanting book “Papyrus” (translated in 2022 by Charlotte Whittle) that people took passages of the Iliad with them into death, in their sarcophagi, as though it were a sacred text.

One of the many lessons the great poem offers is that even the bravest fighters, even those most favored by all-powerful gods, will not be saved. Man is “born to die, long destined for it.” The story runs thick with the blood of heroes, with the pain and defilement of their wounded bodies, which is presumably why the Iliad, unlike the Odyssey, was not among the books sent to American servicemen. Still, the Iliad has inspired soldiers from antiquity onward. Alexander the Great is said to have always kept it near him, and to have seen himself as a new Achilles, as he conquered lands from Egypt to India.

The famed library at the city he founded, Alexandria, was established at an uncertain date a few decades after his death, at the absurdly young age of thirty-two, in 323 B.C. But Vallejo suggests that the idea for the library began with Alexander himself. His teacher, no less a figure than Aristotle, would have instilled in him a love of books. More telling, the library shared Alexander’s vast global ambition, having been built to contain all known writings from all known lands, translated into Greek: the Hebrew Bible, Egyptian pharaonic histories, lengthy Zoroastrian texts. Unending conquest and unending knowledge; full command of the geographic world and of the intellectual world. Armed men were sent to foreign lands like soldiers, in search of papyrus scrolls. But the library also offered its own kind of remedy for the battles beyond its walls. However fiercely Egyptians and Jews and Greeks and others fought, their books rested together on the shelves in peace. As part of a temple complex dedicated to the Muses, the library was a sacred space.

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