Review: When Books Went to War

When Books Went to War

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

Summary: This history of efforts to supply American servicemen in World War 2 with books.

The war against Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Germany was not just a war of bullets and armies. It was a war of ideas and books. In 1933, in Berlin’s Bebelplatz, thousands of books were burned. Books by Jews. Books by foreigners. Books that dissented from the views of Mein Kampf. As Nazi armies marched through Europe, they destroyed libraries, and millions of books.

As the United States slowly edged toward war, and then rapidly mobilized after Pearl Harbor, American leaders quickly came to realize that soldiers needed more than barracks and weapons, training and strategy. They needed ideas, and in the many idle hours between intense battles, they needed diversions. They needed books.

President Roosevelt put it well:

People die, but books never die. No man and no force can put thought in a concentration camp forever. No man and no force can take from the world the books that embody man’s eternal fight against tyranny. In this war, we know books are weapons.

Molly Guptill Manning recounts the massive mobilization effort that put over 140 million books into the hands of Americans in the services, and the powerful impact those books had on those who received them.

While libraries existed on posts, those deployed often lacked greatly. The first response was the National Defense Book Campaign, organized by the American Library Association under the leadership of Althea Warren, director of the Los Angeles Public Library. She launched a national book donation drive with a goal of 10 million books. Eventually 18 million were collected in what became the Victory Book Campaign. However, not all the books were suitable for soldiers and most were heavy hardcovers, not idea for someone’s pack or duffle.

Eventually this effort gave way to the American Services Editions, payed for by the military. Cost constraints combined with an effort of mass production of a number of editions led to adopting a paperback format, produced for roughly five cents a book. Each months, sets were sent out to all the service units. They consisted of classics, how to books, modern fiction, history, biography, sports. They were selected with an eye to soldiers interests. They fit in a soldiers pocket and were so popular that they were traded around until they fell apart

Manning recounts how deeply these were appreciated. Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was the all-time favorite, reminding so many soldiers of home. Soldiers could be found reading them on transports and in fox holes, wherever they could find a moments respite. Books weren’t censored for points of view. Some were controversial, like Strange Fruit, an account of interracial marriage, or steamylike Forever Amber. All of these kept soldiers morale up and reminded them for what they were fighting. Eventually, more books were produced than the Germans destroyed, some by those banned authors. In the end, books not only went to war, they won.

Most fascinating to me was how Manning connects this massive book effort with the massive influx of GIs into colleges after the war, and their seriousness about learning. She raises the question of whether the steady diet of good reading the soldiers experienced during the war (which may not have been true of them before) whet their appetites for serious study that “wrecked the curve” for other undergraduates.

I write this review during “stay at home” orders during a pandemic. This is a very different war. We act collectively by isolating. It will be interesting to see the role books play during this war, when so many other forms of entertainment are available on all our devices. Yet books have a power to form ideas, to capture imagination, to re-fashion our world as we enter that of a book. The stories evoked in my minds eye are always richer than the rendering of another. I know the importance of the idea of relief to those on the edge, but I wonder if for some, the chance to have a collection of new titles delivered each month would be a welcome gift. Should there be an equivalent to Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library for adults? Will our “time out” be long enough to foster a lifelong love for this literature?

Perhaps someday, someone will write a book of this time titled When Books Sustained a Nation. One an only hope.

Review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Mr. Penumbra

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan. New York: Picador, 2012.

Summary: When Clay Jannon starts clerking in Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore, he discovers a most unusual bookstore with unusual customers and figures out that the store is part of a far-flung scheme pursuing one of the oldest quests.

Clay Jannon is an out-of-work web developer who happens on a help wanted sign for the late shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. He takes the job. He discovers there are two kinds of customers. There are the ordinary customers who buy books in the front of the store in its eclectic and relatively limited selection. As it turns out, there are relatively few of these. Then there is a much more interesting group of members of a secret society, which we later learn is called The Unbroken Spine. They have a card with a number. They return a book and ask for another. A description of the transaction, including the person’s appearance and the book returned and requested are to be logged. No questions asked. No looking in the books. These books are in the back of the store on shelves that tower up several stories and must be reached by ladders. They are the Waybacklist.

Jannon’s curiosity gets the best of him, so he uses programming skills and the advice of geeky friends to create a 3-D visualization of the store, then programs the current log into the visualization. He discovers there is a pattern. About this time a cute girl who works at Google, Kat Potente, happens into the store as a result of a Google ad Clay wrote. She spots his visualization and they start working together to add more to the visualization by “borrowing” another log book. Penumbra happens on him in the store just as the visualization is complete. It is a face, that of Aldus Manutius, a pioneer in type-setting. Jannon has completed a task in hours that it would take other members years or even decades.

This discovery sets an unexpected turn of events into motion. Mr. Penumbra’s store is shut down and he is called to New York to meet “Corvina” who it turns out is head of the secret society of the Unbroken Spine, which has stores (really libraries) all over the world for novices to solve the first part of the quest. It turns out that the ultimate quest is to decode the codex left by Manutius, and those who have significantly progressed are all engaged in this, yet for centuries, no one has done so. It is believed that to decode Manutius will result in immortality for all the members of this secret society.

The plot turns on the conflict between old fashioned scholarly study, and the marvels of Google’s algorithms. Should such new ways even be employed? Will either yield the solution to Manutius? And what will happen to Mr. Penumbra and his store?

For lovers of bookstores, this is a great mystery, with the smell of old books and a quest for knowledge. It explores the time we are in, between the world of texts engaged by readers, and the different path of knowledge the web and its algorithms offer. The plot is a page-turner, first as Jannon and his friends (and Kat, with whom Clay falls in and out of love), try to unravel the mystery of the Waybacklist, and then the quest to decode Manutius.

If I would have one beef, it is the characters. They are quirky, but flat. They seem to be caricatures that provide the needed personnel to move a story of old and new ways of knowing forward. It almost feels to me that they are in a video game. The plot saves this book as one is drawn in by the mystery and sense of adventure. I find it interesting that the book was named a best book by NPR and several newspapers and won several other awards. It was a good and diverting read but fell short of great for me. I did like the cool, glow-in-the-dark cover, however.

 

Review: The Bookshop on the Corner

the bookshop on the corner

The Bookshop on the CornerJenny Colgan. New York: William Morrow, 2016.

Summary: Nina Redmond loses her librarian job, pursues a dream of a mobile bookshop, ending up in the Scottish Highlands, bringing joy to a cluster of small towns in her Little Shop of Happy-Ever-After, while longing for her own happy-ever-after.

I’m a sucker for books on books and so didn’t notice that this is categorized as women’s fiction, and romance, two categories I tend not to read. What is curious-er is that I actually liked it, for the most part. It was a nice break from some other heavier reads, and explored some themes I found interesting.

The story is that Nina Redmond, a librarian in Birmingham, is about to lose her job in a library consolidation. In an outplacement workshop exercise, complete with all the cliche’s of modern corporate life, she is invited to share her own dream job. And she finally admits that it is to own her own bookshop, maybe a tiny one, where she can help match up people with books they will love. The dream lingers and takes the shape of a mobile bookshop in a van. She finds the van–in rural Scotland–and finally, with the help of villagers, persuades the owner to sell it to her. They hope she will bring her little bookshop to their town, and after being turned down for vending and parking permits in Birmingham, and a near-disaster encounter with a train, she decides to stay. At last her book-beleaguered roommate Surinder will get her and her books out of the apartment.

With the help of the train engineer, a Latvian emigre by the name of Marek, boxes and boxes of books are transported from Birmingham to a train crossing near her home at Kirrinfief. She finds a beautiful converted barn to rent from a grumpy, divorcing sheep farmer, Lennox. Surinder comes up and paints the name she chooses for her little bookshop, The Bookshop of Happy-Ever-After on her van while she fits out the inside. The bookshop is a huge success and villagers who haven’t read a book in years are matched up with books they love. Some admit that when the libraries closed and no local stores were available, they just stopped reading. There is one delightful scene where she looks around the village, and sees people reading everywhere. The village embraces her and she finds she cares for them more than she would have thought–a teen girl Ainslee and her brother Ben, who are facing some trouble at home, a shopkeeper who has faced too many disappointments, and even the grumpy farmer, who she assists in delivering twin lambs that only she, with her small hands, could untangle inside the ewe.

Yes, it is a romance novel, an adult one in places. Nina strikes up this odd romantic relationship with the Latvian, Marek, who leaves books on a tree by the rail crossing for her, and she in return for him. They meet sometimes, and it nearly becomes something more. Yet, it is pretty clear to the reader that the real deal is Lennox and we all wonder what it will take to bring the two together. We wonder if Nina will find her own “happy-ever-after” or if these are just the stuff of fiction.

I loved the descriptions of the Scotland, the countryside, the short summer nights and the Northern Lights, the village life and festivals. More than this, I love the transformation that occurs both in Nina and in Kirrinfief and how books are the medium of that transformation. Nina discovers a calling in bringing people with little access to books together with books they love, books that broaden their horizons, or even books that are gateways for them into reading, as it was with Ben. In the process, we witness a village discovering what it had lost, settling for electronic media substitutes, and the joy of recovering what was lost and making the fabric of their life a bit richer. The contrast between Kirrinfief and Birmingham, with its hectic pace of life, shuttering its libraries and bookstores for an electronically mediated life, portrayed by her friend Griffin, who manages to keep his job in a technology-oriented thing called a library that has little to do with books.

None of this is heavy-handed, maybe a bit cliché at times, but an enjoyable page-turning read. This was a romance in more ways in one. Yes, there is the romantic element of Nina caught between the “puppy-eyed” Marek, and the gruff, angular Lennox. But there is also the romance of bookselling–the wonderful matchmaking work between books and their readers–as well as the practicalities of getting stock and making a living at it. More than that, we have the reminder in Nina’s rolling bookshop of how everything from Little Free Libraries to bookmobiles and libraries and village bookshops weave together to enrich the social ecology of a place.

Review: How to Read Literature Like a Professor

how to read literature

How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster. New York: Harper Perennial, 2014.

Summary: An introduction to the basics of understanding literature–symbols, themes, and contexts–that enrich our reading of literary fiction.

Have you ever read a literary work and had the feeling that there was so much more going on in the text than you were grasping? Or have you read a review of a book that you read, and felt that the reviewer saw much more in the text than you had? Have you felt that you describe the characters and summarize the plot, but wondered what all of it might signify (although sometimes a story is just a story, but not often in serious literature)? Or were you like me in literature courses where this was all brought up very seriously and pretentiously in ways that made you feel utterly stupid, or worse, where it was just assumed that you understood this stuff?

If you identified with any of these descriptions, I think you will welcome this book as a welcome aid to enrich your reading. For one thing, Foster engages us in an informal, offhand style that makes all the different literary devices he is discussing interesting and fun, and make you feel you are not as stupid as you thought. Here, for example is a passage from the chapter “Every Trip is a Quest (Except When It’s Not)”:

“The real reason for a quest never involves the stated reason. In fact, more often than not, the quester fails at the stated task. So why do they go and why do we care? They go because of the stated task, mistakenly believing that it is their real mission. We know, however, that their quest is educational. They don’t know enough about the only subject that really matters: themselves. The real reason for a quest is always self-knowledge. That’s why questers are so often young, inexperienced, immature, sheltered. Forty-five-year-old men either have self-knowledge or they’re never going to get it, while your average sixteen-to-seventeen-year-old kid is likely to have a long way to go in the self-knowledge department.”

Foster, who is the lit prof all of us wish we had, helps us to see that memory, symbol, and pattern are key to going beyond characters and plot. As we are reading, asking “where have I seen that before?” can be helpful to understanding what is going on. Shakespeare, the Bible, and Greek mythology are three common sources upon which writers consciously or subconsciously draw. One of the key things is that “there’s only one story” and that writers draw upon what they’ve read, a phenomenon known as “intertextuality.” Have you ever felt your books are talking with each other? They just may be.

Then there are symbols, and the challenge of interpreting them: rain and weather, trips that are quests, shared meals that in some way signify communion, going into and coming out of water (baptism), all the symbols that point to sex, and the other things that sex points to.

Then there are patterns, like the vampire pattern–the older person who sucks the life out of the younger, innocent, the hero pattern and how it is usually those next to the hero who die (like the crew in the red uniforms on Star Trek) or the pattern of the Christ figure. Then of course, there is irony which turns the patterns on their heads.

Foster walks us through all of these, with a variety of examples from literary works. I found his use of these works to illustrate various elements from symbol to irony piqued my curiosity to read works I have not read. After covering these elements, he invites us to put them into practice with an exquisite short story by Katherine Mansfield, “The Garden Party.”

The book concludes with the encouragement to read what we like while offering a reading list of works he has mentioned throughout the work as places to start. What I most appreciated was his encouragement in the previous chapter in his discussion on Roland Barthes “death of the author.” His point is that what we really have access to is the text and our opinion of it. He urges:

“Don’t cede control of your opinions to critics, teachers, famous writers, or know-it-all professors. Listen to them, but read confidently and assertively, and don’t be ashamed or apologetic about your reading. You and I both know you’re capable and intelligent, so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Trust the text and trust your instincts. You’ll rarely go far wrong.”

Now doesn’t that make you want to read great literature?

Review: I’d Rather Be Reading

I'd Rather Be Reading

I’d Rather Be Reading, Anne Bogel. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018.

Summary: A collection of essays on the reading life with its unique joys and dilemmas, by a booklover, for booklovers.

I’d Rather Be Reading is a delightful set of essays for those of us who really love books and reading. If nothing else, it tells us that we are not alone. Anne Bogel is the host of the blog Modern Mrs Darcy (A Jane Austen reference) and the “What Should I Read Next” podcast. Not only does she write and speak on reading, she is a reader, one of our tribe. She writes, “We are readers. Books are an essential part of our lives and of our life stories. For us, reading isn’t just a hobby or a pastime; its a lifestyle.” This essay collection explores the nature of reading and the quirky aspects of our reading lives that made me wonder, “have you been to my house?”

She opens with an essay on confessing your literary sins, from those unpaid library fines to the fact that you just can’t get excited about the book everyone else absolutely loves. She describes how books sometimes find us, particularly when they come up in several different, unrelated conversations in the same week. She reminds us of the books that first hooked us on stories and the books that have made us cry. In a variation of the idea that we are all the ages we have ever been, she reflects on the different readers she has been from the child who encountered A Wrinkle in Time to the twenty-something reading spiritual memoirs to the young mother rediscovering children’s books. She writes of fulfilling a fantasy of many of us booklovers to be a bookseller, at least for a day. She talks about her “inner circle” bookshelf of books by family (or those who are like family) and friends.

There are the darker sides of our love of books–the deadly sin of being “book bossy” in our recommendations of books to others (“you really should read this”). There is the quest to organize our shelves and what to do when we run out of them. She has a whole chapter on bookworm problems and the recurring thought of having more books than time and life to read them.

Even these are handled with self-deprecatory humor. The overall tone of the book is joyful–a celebration of what books and reading mean in the lives of those who are “book people.” She delights, as have others of us, in finding a “book twin.” She talks of her discovery of the delights of the “acknowledgements” pages in books (something I discovered only later in life). She concludes with an essay on reading journals and the preference to “rather be reading.”

This book came along about the time I was reading Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well (my review). Both books are celebrations of the reading life, and how our books shape who we are. Prior’s book focuses literary fiction and how our reading might help us reflect on and live into different qualities of virtue. Anne Bogel’s book is a good complement. It is lighter in tone, and helps us hopeless bibliophiles laugh at ourselves, find words for why we love books so much, and know there are many others in the tribe.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Books on Books

20160601_204859One of the ways you know you are a bibliophile is when your reading includes books on books, or bookish subjects! Margaret Aldrich posted a great list recently on BookRiot of 100 Must-Read Books about BooksWhat particularly impressed me about this list were the number of fiction books that “give books a starring role.” About the only one on the list I had read was Fahrenheit 451, and that in my adolescence! One things bibliophiles always like is finding a whole new treasure trove of books. In this list I think I found one.

The non-fiction list was equally delightful. Roughly, it divided into two kinds of books. One was lists of great books, or the experience of reading them. We have for example, 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die by Peter Boxall. Books like these are a great shortcut to discovering interesting books you’ve not heard of. I discovered there is even a website based on the book where you can go through and check off all the books on the list that you’ve read and compare your reading with that of others.

The other part of the list are books having to do with various aspects of our passion for reading. One that looked intriguing was At Home With Books: How Booklovers Live With and Care for Their Libraries.  Personally, I am more on the end of being interested in what is between the covers, but there are many people who collect and lovingly display books and a number of books on this list discussed this aspect of our love of books. One that I reviewed not too long ago is about The Man Who Loved Books Too Much describing the search for and character of a book thief, and why he loved stealing and collecting books. There was one book that I thought aptly described my own life as a bibliophile: The Polysyllabic Spree: A Hilarious and True Account of One Man’s Struggle with the Monthly Tide of the Books He’s Bought and the Books He’s Been Meaning to Read by Nick Hornby. The title nails it for me, particularly if you add in the books that show up in my mailbox or on my doorstep from publishers to be reviewed.

I was surprised not to find David Denby’s Great Books, describing his decision at forty-eight to enroll in Columbia’s two core courses on the Great Books. In a similar vein, the list did not include the account of the birth of the “Great Books” phenomenon, A Great Idea at the Time (reviewed here). I suspect that this idea has fallen out of favor with the rejection of the idea of a canon of literature and the interest in more diverse books and voices. The World Between Two Covers sounded like a great way to read one’s way around the world.

I also have a couple on my TBR stacks (pictured above) that I did not find here that look interesting. One is Bookstore: The Life and Times of Jeannette Watson and Books & Co, by Lynne Tillman. This is the story of a classic New York City bookstore from its opening to its closing. So many bookstores have a lifecycle like this, and leave behind a legion of fans who loved hanging around them. The other is BiblioTECH: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google, by John Palfrey. I’m intrigued with the whole question of how libraries are defining their mission with the advent of so many new technologies.

Perhaps one of the most interesting things about Margaret Aldrich’s post is that it part of a whole other genre of writing about books, of which BookRiot and Bob on Books are a part. There are a whole group of us who are not writing books about books per se’, but in the serialized format of blogging are doing what amounts to the same thing. Perhaps we are trying to recover, in the words of another title on Aldrich’s list, The Lost Art of Readingperhaps because we believe the assertion of the subtitle, that “books matter in a distracted time.”