My parents always had at least one bookcase in our apartment (not a very big one, because most of their books came out of the library) that held the books they had amassed over the years. As soon as I was able to read, I started going through them and absorbing as much as I was able to. While I was originally most interested in a book on home medicine (and especially with the parts — illustrated — about how to deliver a baby and prepare a body for burial), I eventually read almost every book there.
Last year, when my mother moved out of the house and into an apartment, we went through those books. Some went with her, some were given away to a local charity, many of the Yiddish books went to the Yiddish Book Center in Massachusetts. And a few I took home.
One of the books I claimed was a stained paperback titled See Here, Private Hargrove, a World War II-era collection of humorous essays on Army life. I kept it because I remembered enjoying it as a child, and because it was obviously old and would otherwise probably be pulped.
So last week I started reading an interesting book entitled When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning. It tells how important all types of reading materials were to the troops that went overseas — offering them with a portable means of escape — and about the efforts made to provide them with books, first by holding huge donation drives and then by printing lightweight paperback books especially for their use.
This was just after the paperback was introduced to the U.S. market (according to Wikipedia, the first mass-market paperback, published by Pocket Books, was Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, published in 1938). But, according to Manning, it was during WWII that the paperback really came into its own.
To enable soldiers and sailors to have lightweight reading material that they could easily carry with them — and to accommodate the paper shortages that were endemic during the war — thousands of volumes were published. There were many published in a special format just for the troops, but others were “regular” paperbacks. Made of very thin paper and cut with almost no margins at the sides, they were sold at low cost to the public and given out free of charge to the soldiers.
I read about a third into Manning’s book and went looking for Hargrove.
My father and my mother’s brother were both soldiers in WWII — the former in Europe and the latter in the Pacific — and I realized that See Here, Private Hargrove may be have been something that my father carried with him. At the very least, it’s a book that he bought at the time and treasured enough to keep.
The book is well worn, but in better condition than you’d think. On the front, above the title and a photo of the author, it proclaims “Army-Humor Best Seller” and below “Pocketbook Edition Complete & Unabridged.” (Something that the publishers of the new paperbacks felt obliged to emphasize, because otherwise people might not believe that the little paperbacks had everything the “normal” hardcovers did).
The back has the usual blurb and publisher’s logo. In the lower right-hand corner, a little square section reads “Send this book to a boy in the armed forces anywhere for only 3¢.”
The binding is still in fairly good condition (which isn’t the case with some of my father’s other books — a copy of Richard Wilson’s 1950s collection of humorous science fiction stories, Those Idiots From Earth, fell completely apart after I’d reread it countless times). And yes, the print is so close to the edges of the paper that in some places the last letters at the right margin are lost.
In fact, the frontispiece reads, “In order to cooperate with the government’s war effort, this book has been made in strict conformity with WPB regulations restricting the use of certain materials.” (The WPB was the War Production Board, which was concerned with turning civilian industries into war production.) The book itself is the third printing of the paperback edition, dated March, 1942.
And there are other interesting indications of the times. A page in the back headlines “Our Boys Want Books!” urges people to donate the book after reading it, while another titled “Help Win The War!” promotes recycling.
So there it is. Something that I’ve taken for granted all my life — a little paperback that I read before I even fully understood what I was reading. And knowing its background, it is more than just an old, historically interesting series of humor essays — it’s actually something that tells me just a bit more about my father and the times he lived in.