Impertinent Questions

Article excerpt

For this issue of IQ1 we browse the stacks of a bygone era. In Books As Weapons; Propaganda, Publishing, and the Battle for Global Markets in the Era of World War i (Cornell, 20 1 0)1 NEH fellow John B. Hench shows how books helped promote the Allied cause. A book collector, Hench recently retired as vice president of collections and programs at the American Antiquarian Society.

What started you collecting books?

I remembered how much fun my father had collecting books. I envied many book collectors I knew through the American Society and the Grolier Club.

What do you consider your most thrilling discovery?

Billy the Soldier, a handmade "movable book" with cut-outs and paper tabs that alter the image when pulled. It's about a Gl who, after fighting the Germans, is sent to fight the Japanese. Almost certainly created by a German, for what reason I don't know - yet.

Where did you get the idea to write Books as Weapons?

On eBay, I spotted an Overseas Edition, which I'd never heard of, nor, it seemed, had any other scholars. These books were American propaganda directed at civilians abroad after liberation, Scholarship abhors an informational vacuum, so I started researching the series.

Other than as a blunt object, how can a book be a weapon?

"Books are weapons in the war of ideas," the slogan went. Some thought books could also defend people against real bullets. One company marketed a steel-plated bible for troops to carry in their shirt pocket, but the government cited the firm for both false advertising and using rationed steel for unauthorized purposes.

During the war, publishing joined forces with the U.S. government. How?

Through a nonprofit organization called the Council on Books in Wartime. They worked with the government to produce the Overseas Editions, as well as the betterknown Armed Services Editions, which published and distributed I 23 million copies of 1 ,322 titles.

What was in it for the publishing industry?

In addition to helping improve morale for civilians and soldiers, they cultivated new postwar markets for their books, both domestically and overseas.

Was there a downside?

Book publishing was still a genteel profession, and many publishers were uncomfortable appearing commercial in wartime.

What exactly was the propaganda meant to accomplish?

It was intended to help secure the peace. The books were supposed to "disintoxicate" the minds of people numbed by Axis propaganda. They explained what the U.S. had done in war and how it envisioned the peace.

How did the Overseas Editions program come about? …