Book Talk Questions for When Books Went to War

I was recently asked to put together a list of questions for a book talk on When Books Went to War and thought it might be useful to share what I came up with.

1) The Americans who fought (on the home front and abroad) during WWII have been called “the greatest generation.” Does WBWTW confirm this idea?

2) Newspapers called the Victory Book Campaign a failure. Was it? Why or why not?

3) Do you think publishers printed ASEs based on a patriotic duty or do you think they were expecting to ultimately profit from their efforts?

4) Are you surprised by any of the titles the servicemen requested or especially enjoyed?

5) Are there any titles that you think should/shouldn’t have been printed as ASEs? (The appendix lists all the ASEs that were printed)

6) What are your thoughts on how the publishers addressed Congress’s censorship attempt through Title V?

7) Has reading this book changed the way you look at reading? Does it make you value books more? Feel the same about them?

8) Does anyone have a parent, grandparent, other relative, or acquaintance who fought in WWII? Did they ever mention the ASEs or reading while at war?

If you’d like to download a .pdf of these questions, click below:

WhenBooksWenttoWar_discussionquestions

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How I Discovered the Armed Services Editions

Over the last month, I’ve been asked many questions about When Books Went to War.  The one that comes up most often is, “How did you discover this story?”  Here’s the answer.

When I was researching my first book, The Myth of Ephraim Tutt, I was going through the archives of Charles Scribner’s Sons, which was a major publishing house during the early twentieth century.  (In fact, Scribner’s, through the efforts of legendary editor Maxwell Perkins, published works by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.)  The research I was conducting related to the author Arthur Train, and the literary hoax that landed him, Scribner’s, and Perkins in court.

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Train was a prominent author who published over 40 books from 1905-1945.  One of these books was Yankee Lawyer: The Autobiography of Ephraim Tutt.  There was just one problem: this book was not an autobiography.  Tutt was a fictitious character.   Yet, Yankee Lawyer gave every appearance of being a true autobiography.  It was copyrighted by Ephraim Tutt.  It had (fake) photographs of Tutt and his family.  The introduction explained that Arthur Train had finally convinced Tutt to come out of the shadows and tell his story in his own words.  And the tale of Tutt’s life is laced with references to actual events and people, giving the impression that Tutt had lived and walked on this earth.

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Thousands of people were fooled into believing Tutt was real.  Tutt, who was as likable a lawyer you could imagine, received bags of mail from people asking him to represent them in court.  Lawyers wrote to Tutt for legal advice.  The public wrote to cheer him on and thank him for the example he set.  And a few women even wrote to ask Tutt to stop by their homes for a cup of tea.

When the news broke that the book was a hoax, one lawyer grew so incensed that he sued Train, Perkins, and Scribner’s for fraud.  Newspapers had a field day.  One even said that it was a shame that Tutt couldn’t write the brief for his friend, Train.  (To avoid giving away the ending, I will not go further in telling the story of the hoax).

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Of all the books the publishers selected for publication as Armed Services Editions, Yankee Lawyer: The Autobiography of Ephraim Tutt happened to be one of them.  And, as you can see from the spine, the book does not say that it is by “Train.”  The spine presents “Tutt” as the author.  For American soldiers serving overseas, often lacking the newspapers and magazines printed on the home front, the book caused a world of confusion.  And they wrote to Train, Tutt, and Scribner’s to get answers.

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As I was combing through the Charles Scribner’s Archives, I came across hundreds of letters from soldiers asking whether Tutt was real.  Bets had been made, factions had formed, and disagreements abounded.  To give just one example, several members of the Seventh Division wrote from Okinawa Island the day after a long and bloody battle, because they had argued about Yankee Lawyer for long enough.  “Having read your published book, Yankee Lawyer, . . . we have started a never ending discussion.  The question raging back and forth is whether Ephraim Tutt is a real or an imaginary character,” the letter said.  “At the moment we are fighting two battles, one with the Japanese on Okinawa and the other among ourselves about your particular book,” the men continued.  “We have no doubt as to the outcome of the argument with the Japanese but are certainly up in the air about Ephraim Tutt.”

Hundreds of letters like this one were mailed from locations around the world.  Many of these letters mentioned the Armed Services Edition of Yankee Lawyer.  Others thanked Scribner’s for taking part in the Armed Services Edition program.  At the time, I had never heard of the ASEs, but because there were so many letters talking about them, I decided to find out what I could.  The more digging I did, the more I wanted to know about these incredible little books.  The story fascinated me.  As I discovered all of the different dimensions to the wartime book programs–starting with the book burnings in Germany and the Victory Book Campaign, to the ASEs, the congressional censorship battle, and the GI Bill–I realized this forgotten story of World War II needed to be told, and I wanted to tell it.  When Books Went to War was born.

 

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Giving Thanks

As many Americans prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving and reflect on the things for which they are most thankful, I can’t help but think about a book I read not too long ago about an Army medic, Ernest Norquist, who served during WWII.  He was at the Battle of Corregidor and surrendered to Japan, trekked the Bataan Death March, and ended up in a prison camp.  For three and a half years, he was a POW.

During his captivity, he kept a secret journal.  I’d like to share a short passage from his August 1943 entry that I can’t stop thinking about today:

“We are a mere 10,000 alive out of 25,000.  [Some 15,000 men died.]  We are equipped with no rifles and no artillery.  We have ragged uniforms and leaky shoes.  We are hardly worth rescuing.  Yet, remember–remember we are all that remains of the brave Army of Bataan….  Our men faced the shells, the bombs, the bullets, and the grenades hurled at us, flung them back in kind until the effort wore them out.  We looked for rescue, but there was none.  We look even now, and hope and pray and wait, wait, wait–for what?

“We long for freedom, the heritage of every one of us by right, the virtue for which our men fought, for which many died.  They were our nation’s pride.  We wait to see the skies the highway for our planes, to see the roads the pathway for our soldiers.  These are things for which we wait.  True, we have peace within ourselves here, but we pay a price daily and long for liberty as well.  How long must we wait?  How long?

“It rains daily now, and the ration detail must splash through the mud and water.  The ‘death parade’ has shortened to some ten a day instead of 30 or 40, as it was before a shipment of medicines came in.   Also, better meals of late have helped to bring this about.  Getting back to the States will be like returning from the dead.”

Really puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?

Ernest Norquist survived.  He weighed only 100 pounds when he was liberated (he was 6′ 3″ tall), but he lived through unthinkable brutalities, starvation, and unimaginable struggles.  And he returned to the States that he dreamed of seeing again.  After the war, he published his secret diary recording his captivity, Our Paradise.  I believe the book is out of print, but if you can track down a copy, it’s well worth the read.

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Spooky Wartime Reads

With Halloween a couple of days away, I was thinking about what American servicemen might have done to celebrate this holiday while serving overseas.  I doubt they went foxhole-to-foxhole or bunk-to-bunk trick-or-treating.  Maybe, if they were lucky, the Special Services Division might have some candy bars to distribute–which were always a treat when living on rations.  But, for servicemen stationed around the world, the most readily available item that would deliver a good Halloween-style haunting was a book.  And thanks to the work of the Council on Books in Wartime, there were several scary titles from which to choose.

For those of you who are not familiar with the Council on Books in Wartime, it was an organization created by American publishers during World War II.  One of its most important projects was to print Armed Services Editions, miniature paperback books that were sized to fit in the hip or breast pocket of a military uniform.  Each month, the publishers would print a group of titles–aiming for a variety of genres so there would be something for everyone–and the Army and Navy would ship the books to units around the world.  Over the course of about four years, over 123 million Armed Services Editions were sent to Americans serving in the armed forces.  It was an amazing feat.

Among the nearly 1,200 titles that were distributed (for free, by the way), there were at least a dozen volumes of horror, ghost, or just plain creepy stories.  Here are a few examples….

For the men who loved a good ghost story, there was

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Others might like a classic, such as Dracula.

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Or perhaps Frankenstein.

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For those not concerned with sleep deprivation, there was Sleep No More.

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A volume of Edgar Allan Poe Stories has a good dose of creepiness.  “The Tell-Tale Heart” is in here–murder, pounding floorboards, torment from the undead dead.

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These are just a handful of the titles that were distributed during WWII that might keep you awake at night.  In honor of the Halloween nights spent in foxholes or swinging in a hammock below deck reading, why not read a scary story this year to help get your Halloween fix?

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Hello!

World War II was not the first time that American public libraries stressed the importance of books.   During World War I, reading was considered an important patriotic activity.

 

Welcome to my blog!  My plan is to use this space to comment on all things related to books, with an emphasis on the WWII books programs–the Victory Book Campaign and the Council on Books in Wartime’s Armed Services Editions.  I am also planning to blog about wonderful bookstores and places to visit in and out of New York City.  So please stay tuned!

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