Book Sleuthing

book sleuth

As a former information professional, I have mixed feelings about the Internet and the way it has changed our lives (and careers!) but sometimes it provides a lot of fun. I have become hooked on the used book sites and the way they make it possible to find old books. Here is an oddball search that brought me a lot of joy.

There was a fascinating new book called When Books Went to War, by Molly Gupthill Manning. It tells the story of the Armed Service Editions, pocket size paperbacks for servicemen and women in World War 11.

The very first mention of it brought up a memory straight from my childhood. A pocket-sized book, but not a paperback. A shabby brown cover. The title page said: “”A portable library… assembled for members of the Armed Forces….”

It was called As You Were. I’m sure it was the cute, comfortable size that led me to pick it up more than once. I’d always remembered vividly two stories, the American classic, “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” and a chilling anti-Nazi story called “Address Unknown,”which I’d never seen anywhere else.

I did a little looking around and found that when it was first published in 1938, it caused a sensation and was made into a movie. The author was Kressman Taylor, an unknown name to me and not actually the author’s real name. HER name was Katherine Kressman Taylor.

So I searched for and found a copy of As You Were online, priced as a “used” book, not a “valuable “ book (in other words, cheap) and ordered it right away.

There were interesting surprises. The editor was Alexander Woollcott, a name I know now in relation to the early New Yorker and the famous Algonquin Round Table. (He was also the original of the irascible visitor in the play The Man Who Came to Dinner!) In the introduction he wrote movingly of books during his military service in the first World War and said of this one: “The contents … limited to American letters in the hope … will reach them as a familiar voice from the land they’ve left behind.”

I know now that the title is a pun, a military term used to evoke much more.

The two stories I fully remembered are just as powerful as ever. There are also stories by Ring Lardner, Dorothy Parker, Hemingway, O.Henry. Walter Edmonds, a name I knew from childhood in upstate New York.The American Poetry section has Longfellow and Emerson and also Vachel Lindsay, Millay, Frost, cummings. And James Weldon Johnson. The American Fact section starts with the Declaration of Independence and ends with the inscription on the tomb of the unknown soldier, but in between there is Carl Sandburg, Millay again, E.B. White. And also a letter from Nicola Sacco. Next to these well-known names I found Ben Hur Lampman, Williston Fish, Arthur Kober, Ruth Gordon. (I believe she is the actress who won an Oscar for her role in Rosemary’s Baby a lifetime later.)

The collection is a time machine for what it tells us about what was considered “American” at that moment in time, for the once famous authors in it who are now forgotten, and also for the memories it returns to me. Here’s why:

My father gave this book to me, to read “The Devil and Daniel Webster” and another story in another book, to explain how differently Christians and Jews imagined “the devil.” He was an extraordinary keeper of odd pieces of knowledge. He could install a dishwasher, tell me about the discovery of ancient Mycenae, help with geometry homework and introduce me to “The Devil and Daniel Webster.”