The Pulp of Culture: On Andrew Pettegree’s “The Book at War”

By Greg BarnhiselMarch 25, 2024

The Pulp of Culture: On Andrew Pettegree’s “The Book at War”

The Book at War: How Reading Shaped Conflict and Conflict Shaped Reading by Andrew Pettegree

RUSSIA’S 2022 INVASION of Ukraine sparked an “information war,” in which both sides use the increasingly sophisticated tools of modern electronic communication to control how their own citizens, the adversary population, and the watchful world perceive the ongoing conflict.

This is a war fought on YouTube and TikTok, Telegram and Twitch. But it also takes place in hardcover. Vladimir Putin has ordered Russian schoolbooks be rewritten to deny that Ukrainians were ever a separate nation, and the Russian soldiers have targeted libraries and even ruined Ukrainian books by dumping them in saltwater.

The damage is both collateral and intentional, and the ultimate purpose is to eradicate Ukrainian identity by destroying its physical manifestations—not just its buildings but also the books that hold, in more permanent form than any cloud-housed set of binary code, that culture’s record.

Nor is it just Putin who targets old-fashioned books in our digital age. ISIS destroyed the library of Mosul and burned much of its priceless collection in 2015. The Taliban did the same to many Afghan libraries and collections in their first period of rule. The Bosnian Serb army purposefully obliterated the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992, destroying over two million books and manuscripts. These were all efforts to extirpate cultures. One would think that this would be a quaint and irrelevant practice in the internet age, but one would be wrong. Books are still central to warfare.

For this reason, Andrew Pettegree’s The Book at War: How Reading Shaped Conflict and Conflict Shaped Reading (2023) can’t and shouldn’t be read just as history, even though culturcide via libricaust is only one of the book’s themes.

In this generous and often surprising study, Pettegree looks at how books and war intertwine from every angle imaginable: how soldiers use books and how books shape soldiers; how writers depict war, and how war created writers; how noncombatants turn to books for solace, and how these inexpensive, durable, and easily damaged objects seem to be everywhere a conflict is raging.

Although he nods to the strong 19th-century connection of war and books—Clausewitz, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the library at Sandhurst—Pettegree’s great subject is the 20th century, when mass literacy, public libraries, and a thriving publishing industry across the Western world put books everywhere, even in the trenches of World War I’s Western Front. National library associations and eventually the Red Cross ensured soldiers and prisoners of war had reading material. If World War I didn’t provide much time for relaxing reading, it did spawn authors like Siegfried Sassoon, Ernest Hemingway, and the doomed poet Wilfred Owen.

The beloved novel Brideshead Revisited (1945) was the product of the next war, as insubordinate and incompetent Royal Marines officer Evelyn Waugh received unpaid leave at its height to compose his masterpiece. As he told his commanding officer, “once an idea becomes fully formed in the author’s mind, it cannot be left unexploited without deterioration.” How the Allies could win the war with Waugh a noncombatant remains a mystery.

War could be great for publishing, and World War II saw two wildly successful ventures on the Allied side. Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin Books (and popularizer of the paperback), launched a Forces Book Club through which, for a £3 annual subscription, one could mail 10 titles a month to a family member or unit abroad. By serving the troops, Lane ensured himself an extra allocation of rationed paper and a monopoly cost-plus contract with the British Army.

Even bigger were the United States’ “Armed Services Editions” (ASE), produced not by a single publisher but by the Council on Books in Wartime trade group. By the time ASE wound down in 1947, it had distributed around 122 million copies of 1,322 titles to eager troops from North Africa to the South Pacific to Normandy. Reprints of classics and contemporary fiction dominated ASE’s offerings, and the most popular offerings were James M. Cain’s noir The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and Kathleen Winsor’s steamy Forever Amber (1944). ASE’s reprint edition also gave a new life to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s largely forgotten 1925 curiosity, The Great Gatsby, which was never out of print again.

Technical and scientific publications probably aren’t what first come to mind when thinking about books and war, but Pettegree highlights how precious those are when they exist only in material form, not on a searchable database. What does the other side know, what are they working on, and how can we stop them from doing it? Because scientific journals were printed and circulated in relatively small runs and held in few places, university technical libraries became crucial assets for weapons researchers. They also became top targets for enemy bombers and the sticky fingers of occupying or victorious powers. After the war, records of Germany’s secretive rocket research was the “work that the victorious Allies would be most determined to purloin,” Pettegree points out, and they definitely brought it back home.

Technical pages weren’t the only pages to be looted. World War II brought about the theft of books and entire collections at a greater scale than in any conflict the world had ever known. Venality and greed motivated much of this, and Nazi royalty like Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Göring, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and Albert Speer amassed astounding collections of rare books, manuscripts, and artwork from defeated nations. Chief Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg—whose turgid The Myth of the Twentieth Century (1930) was the second most circulated book in Nazi Germany—was put in charge of the book-theft project and siphoned countless books back to the Third Reich.

But like Putin today in Ukraine, the Germans also sought to annihilate “inferior” cultures by effacing their history and language. “Poland,” Pettegree states, “lost 90 per cent of the content of its school and public libraries and 80 per cent of private collections and specialist libraries […] some 15 million books in all.” As he notes, “all that was to remain in Poland was a core of scholarly libraries for use of the local German population and the occupying forces.” Like Putin in Ukraine, the Germans sought to erase Polishness itself.

In Nazi fantasies, other extinct cultures were to be turned into museum pieces. Rosenberg planned to create 10 institutions across Germany that would be furnished with stolen books, but only one materialized before the Reich fell. By 1943, his Frankfurt Institute for Research on the Jewish question—stocked with the spoils of mass murder in Warsaw, Poland; Vilnius, Lithuania; and Kyiv, Ukraine—became the “finest Jewish library in Europe,” with half a million volumes and countless Torah scrolls.

It wasn’t just the Germans. The advancing Soviet Army also emptied libraries across Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Germany (many of them now full of stolen titles) and sent the volumes back to Moscow and Leningrad. Only in the last two decades has much of this material been returned to its rightful owners. Even the United States filled its libraries with plunder: after the war ended, the Office of Strategic Services appropriated and sent back to American libraries over two million German and Japanese books.

At least they survived. Being highly flammable, books are particularly susceptible to bombing campaigns, and Pettegree shows the appalling receipts: over 100,000 of University College London’s collection destroyed in “a single attack” of the Blitz; most of the 400,000 volumes of the National Library in Athens turned to ash when the Germans abandoned the city in 1944; the bibliothèque of the French Assemblée nationale (equivalent to the Library of Congress) obliterated by the Nazis in 1944; 200,000 books in the National University Library in Beijing lost to Japanese bombing.

And that’s just libraries. Extrapolating from conservative estimates of books per home (15 in the United Kingdom, 20 in more “bookish” Germany) and numbers of homes destroyed by bombing, Pettegree arrives at a total of 102 million books ruined or lost in private residences just in those two countries. Nor were publishers spared. The geographic centralization of the British and German industries hurt when a single December 1940 bombing raid on Paternoster Row incinerated most English publishers’ stocks, and a 1943 run on Leipzig did the same to German firms. The toll to publishers, Pettegree concludes, was around 50 million.

Altogether, he dolorously calculates, the war resulted in “close to 500 million books being lost, destroyed or abandoned […] an astonishing assault on the collective reading culture of Europe, as well as Asia […] where mass literacy was only just emerging.”

The Book at War is full of such terrible ironies. Oxford’s not-yet-completed New Bodleian Library, its empty spaces waiting for books, served its World War II mission both as the admiralty’s photographic library and as the repository for books to be sent to Allied prisoners of war by the Red Cross. Hitler never bombed the New Bodleian, despite its legitimacy as a military target, but the Royal Air Force wasn’t so scrupulous and in 1943 obliterated the Berlin Technical University Library with all of its 250,000 books and journals.

Americans were appalled at footage of 1933 Nazi book burnings, making Allied Order No. 4 embarrassing when it called for military commanders to burn all Nazi literature their forces found in occupied Germany in 1946. After an outcry, the books met their end in the much less inflammatory—in both senses—pulping process.

“[T]he advance of new media,” Pettegree observes at the end of this encyclopedic survey, “does not necessarily render older means of communication redundant.” Indeed, invading armies pay tribute to the power of books through their determination to trash them.

In Ukraine today, books don’t only carry culture. Stacked in apartment windows, they protect residents from bomb-shattered glass. Their shredded pages and covers fill sandbags and reinforce bunkers. At worst, they kindle the fires keeping Ukrainians warm in the winter. Their ubiquity, their material cheapness, becomes their value. Like cockroaches, like the deer and rabbits that increasingly populate suburban American lawns, books propagate in great numbers and at little cost to their producers, and that’s what makes them a particularly resilient medium for instruction, for entertainment, and even for the transmittal and survival of a culture.

LARB Contributor

Greg Barnhisel is a professor of English at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. He is the author of Cold War Modernists: Art, Literature, and American Cultural Diplomacy (2015) and James Laughlin, New Directions, and the Remaking of Ezra Pound (2005), and editor of the journal Book History. He has written for scholarly and trade publications including Slate, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Humanities, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. His Code Name Puritan: Norman Holmes Pearson at the Nexus of Poetry, Espionage, and American Power will be published in October 2024.


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