Knowing More Wins the War

World War II is usually remembered as a war of lethal weapons—great powers using bombs, artillery, and other weapons to win victory. But the war was also a struggle for information. Knowing what the enemy knew and what plans were being laid was crucial. Up until World War II, America had no organized structure for gathering information from foreign sources, but as the Nazis gained power in Europe, the need to know became imperative. Franklin Roosevelt recognized this need and appointed William “Wild Bill” Donovan to head up a new operation, which became known as the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). It was an office that became a crucial part of the war effort.  

Fortunately, the need for increased information occurred at a time when scholars were discovering how to preserve and share documentation in dramatic new ways. Microfilm was a new medium that could record information in a format that could be hidden in diplomatic pouches and shipped overseas cheaply without attracting much attention. Although we now remember microfilm as a dull and outdated medium, during World War II and the Cold War, it became a vital weapon against threats from foreign governments.  

In her recent book, Information Hunters: When Librarians, Soldiers, and Spies Banded together in World War II Europe, Kathy Peiss tells us about some of the people who participated in the hidden war for information. Donovan turned to Archibald MacLeish, the Librarian of Congress, who recruited librarians and scholars from across the country to hunt out and transport papers, journals, and books from Europe to the United States. Their efforts during the 1940s and early 1950s shifted the balance of information between Europe and America and shaped the postwar information revolution that has changed our world. 

Peiss’s book is crowded with stories about individuals who made a difference to the war and to the postwar society that developed out of it. We learn about their activities as they pursued leads to bookstores, publishers, and libraries seeking written records of the events and publications that led up to the war. Even Nazi propaganda and popular books designed to encourage loyalty to the Nazi regime were collected and shipped to the United States. The book tells a fascinating story of a band of brave and dedicated men and women who were willing to carry out this dangerous work.   

We can easily understand how all these sources of knowledge became important historical records, but for those of us who have no firsthand knowledge of how chaotic Europe was during those years—what the streets and shops these information hunters visited were like—it is hard to visualize what the information hunters were up against during their searches. There is something about a visual reconstruction of the scene that makes it come alive. And as I read Peiss’s book, I discovered that visual reinforcement in a movie—Orson Welles’s classic The Third Man.   

Although the plot of the movie had nothing to do with the librarians and scientists who inhabit the Information Hunters, the movie shows us the rubble-strewn streets of Vienna and the weary and frightened people who inhabit the city. Seeing those streets makes the adventures of the information hunters come to life. We can feel the chill of fear that visited each of them as they sought documents and books that had been hidden away in cellars, buried under the rubble of bombed out churches, and stored in warehouses through the war years.  

Sometimes it takes more than one medium to make history come alive. For anyone who is interested in understanding World War II and the impact it had on the world we live in today, I strongly recommend reading Peiss’s book and perhaps supplementing it with the movies, pictures and music that make history come alive. 

Finding the Past in the Land of the Future

What does Anne of Green Gables have in common with The Parable Series by Octavia Butler or The Hunger Games or my own Charlotte Edgerton mystery story A Death in Cover of A Death in UtopiaUtopia? Recently I discovered that they all have enough in common to share a space on the Internet in Utopian studies.

Five hundred years ago, Thomas More coined the term Utopia and used it to describe a fictional community that many readers saw as far better than the actual communities in which they lived. Ever since then, it seems, people have been searching for the ideal Utopia where healthy, happy people could live and flourish without the need for violence, war, and greed.

During the early 19th century, in both America and Europe, the search for the ideal community continued and led to the establishment of several Utopian societies including Brook Farm in Massachusetts and the Oneida colony in New York. At a time of crisis when the country was changing, many people were discontented with the ways things were going. Fulfilling lives seemed to be disappearing as the industrial society replaced the old rural, farming life Americans had been accustomed to. Isolated groups of people trying to forge a new society did not, however, find great success in changing the world. As years went by, the Utopian or “intentional” communities have mostly faded away, but perhaps technology has found a new way to bring together the dreamers, past and present, who hope for a better world.

Even Ronald Reagan, the idol of conservatives across the country believed that

Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan

 

technology would solve the world’s problems.  As reported in The Guardian (June 14, 1989) he announced “The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip.” It never quite worked that way though; Goliath has not quite disappeared in the almost 30 years since Reagan predicted its demise, but our world has certainly been changed by technology.

The Internet has made it possible for writers, readers and dreamers across the world to share ideas about how people have tried to change society in the past and what could happen in the future. This summer a conference, Solidarity and Utopia 2017 in Gdansk, Poland, brought together scholars from many different countries and disciplines to discuss the ways Utopian ideas have affected the world. There was a great deal to be learned.

I had never known that Lucy Maud Montgomery’s famous Anne of Green Gables became an important document in Poland during World War II. Polish soldiers were issued copies of a Montgomery novel to take to the front; later, it became part of a thriving black market trade for the Polish resistance.

As for my own heroine, Charlotte Edgerton, here is what one scholar discussed about her appearance in A Death in Utopia.

Intentional Community under the Magnifying Glass: Brook Farm in A Death in Utopia by Adele Fasick Elżbieta Perkowska–Gawlik (Maria Curie-Skłodowska University, Lublin) A Death in Utopia of 2014 by Adele M. Fasick is the first book in the Charlotte Edgerton mystery series. The eponymous utopia stands for The Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education, a famous intentional community set up by George and Sophia Ripley in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 1841. But for economic solidarity and the solidarity of ideas, Brook Farm would have never come into existence. However, “all the grand plans for reforming the world” (Fasick 3) were very soon confronted by the practicalities of farming, in which most of the members lacked experience. Since the novel covers the span of time from September to November 1842, i.e. the second year of Ripley’s experiment, the spirits of many members appear to be high yet the looming financial crisis casts a shadow over the future of the whole enterprise. To make matters worse a Unitarian minister visiting the community is found dead on the premises of Brook Farm. Charlotte, one of the Brook Farmers, resolves to protect the good name of the community and find the culprit. In my presentation I will argue that Fasick’s idea of inscribing the fictional investigation of an amateur detective into the life of Brook Farm has proved to be successful as far as “magnifying” the issue of solidarity is concerned. However, Charlotte’s amateurish attempts to solve the criminal conundrum reveal more of the ideals and daily routines of the intentional community than of the tragic circumstances concerning the crime, a facet most probably intended by the author who has already explored the history of Brook Farm on a scholarly basis.

We may not have reached a Utopian society, but the possibilities are still worth discussion. And being able to talk about them on a worldwide network is the kind of Utopian dream that Thomas More and the Brook Farmers would have loved to celebrate.

A binge is a binge is a binge–going overboard on reading

Summer is coming up and for many people that is the prime season for binge watching reading-bookTV series they missed during the year. But television isn’t the only media that is ripe for binging. Binge reading is a perennial favorite especially during rainy summer weekends when the beach is sodden and hiking trails are muddy.

Some people define binge reading as reading a book obsessively and not putting it down until you’ve finished it, whether that is 2 a.m. or sunrise. But equally satisfying is the binge reading done in bits and pieces but covering a whole series of books, usually genre books like mysteries, romances or science fiction. I remember one stressful holiday season when I gulped down one Ruth Galloway mystery after another, relishing the excuse to leave my crowded household for the north shore of England filled with mysteries about archeology and with patient sleuths. (In case you’ve never read them, the Ruth Galloway mysteries are by Elly Griffiths).

Binge reading can be by subject too. I remember spending a snowy Christmas week, stuck in the house with small children, reading one book after dellaRobbia_Dorothea_(2)another about Renaissance Italy. It was almost like having a vacation.

Binge reading could be difficult in the old days when ending one book and feeling the urgent need for another meant a trip to the library or possibly even a bookstore if one was available. Now with ebooks, it takes only a few clicks to have the next book in the series delivered electronically from your public library or ebook supplier.

Most readers don’t think about the people who supply the books for us to read, but the enthusiasm for series books to read has put a lot of strain on writers. In the days before the indie publishing revolution—five years ago or more—there was usually a wait of two or three years between books. Traditional publishing is a time-consuming business. Now, if you look at writing blogs, you will see writers complaining that their publishers want at least two books a year from their series of mysteries or romances. It’s not easy for a writer to come up with several new ideas for books every year. As a result, a sparkling series may dwindle away as old plot twists are reused and irrelevant padding dragged into the story. It can be as sad to see a good, lively book series die away as it is to watch a TV series wither in its final season. It is much better for writers and publishers to aim for “limited series” as the TV shows are now doing. A quartet of lively books using the same characters and setting is better than a dozen books of repetitious stories.

On the other hand, some writers could be called binge writers. They keep turning out books and finding an audience year after year after year. One of these was Barbara

Barbara-Cartland
Barbara Cartland

 

Cartland, who wrote more than 700 books in her 80-year-long career before her death in 2000. And her fans kept on loving them. Another was Isaac Asimov, who wrote more than 500 books both science fiction and non-fiction. He contributed so much to our culture that he deserves a separate post.

There should be a special award for binge writers whose energy and ideas feed our need for more stories to feed our passion.

 

 

 

 

Recapturing the past one book at a time

Books and roseI’ve spent a surprising amount of time this month looking at old books, first at the California Antiquarian Book Fair  where I saw an amazing number of valuable and beautiful old books. It’s fascinating to see early editions of books by the likes of Charles Dickens and Willa Cather, all of them far too expensive to buy of course. Old children’s books from 30, 40 or even 50 years ago were featured by some of the dealers. I guess a lot of book collectors enjoy rereading the books of their childhood. And as I discovered later in the week, I am one of them.

A few days after going to the Book Fair I went to an estate sale in a neighborhood not far from where I live. The owner had been an antiquarian book dealer and the house was jammed not only with the usual stuff of estate sales—costume jewelry, china dishes, and small pieces of furniture—but with shelf after shelf of old books. Many of them were leather bound, small Aucassin _edited-2books from the 19th century or cloth bound books from the early 20th century. Wandering along those shelves, pulling out the books was a great pleasure, but it took a while until I came to my greatest prize. I found a small book that I remembered from my childhood—the tale of Aucassin and Nicolete.

It was one of my favorite books from the branch of the public library in Queens that I visited so often. I remember exactly the place where it stood on the shelf, near the fireplace where the librarian used to conduct her story hours. I was surprised to find the romantic tale again and surprised to recognize the black-and-white line drawings in the book. Luckily for me, the book only cost seven dollars, so I was happy to bring it home where I could pore over those pictures the way I used to do when I was a twelve-year-old in love with romantic stories. The lines of poetry that close the story still sound charming:

Aucissn_Nicolete_edited-2Aucassin is blithe and gay,

Nicolete as glad as May.

And they lived for many a day,

And our story goes its way.

                        What more to say?

The books that twelve-year-olds—these days they are called tweens—read Aucassin-castletoday are far larger and more elaborate than the books I remember from the library.  I guess television and online entertainment have drenched our world in so much color and action that quiet black-and-white drawings and stately, old-fashioned stories no longer hold a reader’s attention. Graphic novels have won a place in children’s libraries; refugees and death have become a focus of attention and action often jumps far more quickly than it used to. The world is big and children should be introduced to many aspects of it. I just hope that they will spend enough time with their books that they will remember them and when they are older will be able to turn back to their favorites and enjoy them just as I do mine.