A fascinating article in The Atlantic details how publishers sent free books overseas to GIs during World War II (in sharp contrast to the countries were books were burned) and in so doing, created “a nation of readers.” Sure, the soldiers preferred westerns, mysteries, comics and porn to relieve the boredom and the waiting, but the article also noted:
No book generated more passion among its readers than A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a gritty coming-of-age novel. On a Pacific island, a lucky soldier given a new copy “howled with joy,” but knew he’d have to sleep on top of it if he hoped to hang onto it long enough to finish it. A 20-year-old Marine “went through hell” in two years of combat, but wrote from his stateside hospital bed that the book had made him feel human again. It might, he conceded, be “unusual for a supposedly battle-hardened marine to do such an effeminate thing as weep over a piece of fiction,” but he was now making his way through the book for the third time. In France, the colonel commanding an anti-aircraft battalion being shelled by German artillery found one of his soldiers reading the book between explosions. “He started to read us a portion … and we laughed like hell between bursts. It sure was funny.” The tough West Pointer later found a copy of his own, and was tempted to pull it out and read it while wounded and pinned down by enemy fire. “It was that interesting,” he recalled, in a letter to the publisher.