WWII – A war that saved the publishing industry?

As students of history, we are all well acquainted with books. And lots of them. Just look at the boxes of books that used to be scattered across my room before I was told that that was an “unacceptable way to live.” I have since gotten shelves.

But I digress. The point is that the world of books is second-nature to us. But do we have World War II to thank for that?

An American serviceman stationed in Iceland relaxes with a book. (United States Army)

That is the argument Yoni Appelbaum, a lecturer in history and literature at Harvard University, makes in his new article for The Atlantic, “Publishers Gave Away 122,951,031 Books During World War II (And, in the Process, They Created a Nation of Readers.)” (I assure you, he spent more time on the article than he did coming up with a title).

According to Appelbaum, prior to World War II, “proper” books (excluding cheap westerns or mystery novels) were limited to hardcover and beyond the means of the middle class. But when war broke out, publishers, led by W.W. Norton, recognized an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. By sending millions of copies of their best works to soldiers overseas, publishers not only did a patriotic service to the United States, but they created a new cohort of readers who would buy books upon coming home. This boom in book purchasing, Appelbaum contends, was also bolstered by the new acceptance of  paperback books stemming from the widespread use of GI copies during the war.

Appelbaum suggests that the publishers’ gamble paid off. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, for example, went from being a non-seller to a staple of high school English classes due to its popularity among the troops.

So it seems that making the United States a nation of book owners is yet another thing we have to thank the Greatest Generation for. Or curse them I guess, depending on how much you like to read. 

It is easy to think about how war changes political environments. But articles like these provoke other questions about how war changes society in other, perhaps more subtle, ways.


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