WWII changed everything, including the way we read books.
The 1940s were profoundly shaped by WWII and its aftermath. Generally, the 40s are referred to as the “war years,” as WWII still dominates our discussion of the decade. Sorrow, horror, as well as patriotism, and hope are associated with it.
However, despite rationing, censorship, and the war’s heavy demands, the demand for books remained steady. Everyone, from the men on the front lines to the folks at home, wanted stories, all kinds of stories.
While Nazis in Germany were burning books, outraged American librarians began collecting book donations to send overseas.
Eventually, the War Department got involved. They encouraged American publishers to crank out millions of “Armed Service Edition” books. ASEs, as they were called, were lightweight paperbacks, some only ¾ of an inch thick. This made it possible for US soldiers to carry them in their pockets as they fought and marched through North Africa, Europe, and the Pacific.
Soldiers read them everywhere—on transport ships, in foxholes, in camps, and while recovering in hospitals. US publishers sent over 120 million ASEs overseas. This program created a generation of readers and launched the $.25 paperback industry that revolutionized how Americans consumed books.
DiscoverBooks.com highlights 10 of the best books written in the 1940s. Please join us in our Read Through the Decades book challenge. February’s 1920s list is found here. March was the 1930s and is located here.
West with the Night
Beryl Markham, 1942
Ernest Hemingway called this a “bloody wonderful book,” and we think you’ll agree. Beryl Markham was truly a modern woman for her time.
This memoir chronicles her life, from her adventures growing up in Africa to her solo east/west flight across the Atlantic Ocean and everything in between.
This book is witty and fun to read. Ms. Markham is one of the most amazing people you’ve ever heard of, and once you finish this book, you’ll never forget her.
John Steinbeck, 1945
Cannery Row is typical Steinbeck; it’s a tale of people who live at the margins of society and struggle to survive emotionally as well as physically. In this case, the people are the residents of Cannery Row in Monterey, California.
In this poignant and amusing tale, a group of boys attempts to do something nice for Doc, a kind and fatherly neighborhood figure. When the plans go awry, the boys try to set things right. You’ll love the characters and find yourself yearning to visit the picturesque California coast.
It will make you laugh out loud, especially at a particular line about cheese that tickles our funny bone every time.
George Orwell, 1945
Did you read this book back in high school? If so, you’re not alone; high schoolers have been learning about satire and allegory by reading Animal Farm since its 1945 publication. Reading this book as an adult will give you an entirely different perspective.
Orwell wrote this book in response to Stalin’s rise following the war. Still, you’ll see an allegory about modern-day Pakistan, Korea, or even the cult of personality dominating US politics. That’s what makes this book so genius. Its themes of power, politics, fear, and submission are timeless.
Tales of the South Pacific
James A. Michener, 1946
Tales of the South Pacific is a collection of stories about the war in the Pacific. Michener wrote it based on his experiences as a US Navy lieutenant commander serving on the island of Espiritu Santo (now known as Vanuatu) in the New Hebrides Islands.
The stories are loosely connected by recurring characters and a subtle plotline. They mainly focus on interactions between locals and servicemen, and women.
Mr. Michener won a Pulitzer Prize for this book. It gives an insider’s view into what it was like to serve in the South Pacific during the war.
John Hersey, 1946
Hiroshima was destroyed on August 6, 1945, when the US dropped the first-ever atomic bomb. Mr. Hersey tells in great detail what happened on that fateful day using compassionate and detailed accounts gleaned from the memories of survivors.
This book employs story-telling techniques from the world of fiction to give non-fiction, journalistic account of the events. Forty years following the book’s original publication, Mr. Hersey returned to Hiroshima to speak again to the same group of survivors.
His account of that visit serves as the final chapter to the current edition of the book. Hiroshima will touch your soul.
Mervyn Peake, 1946
Fantasy lovers agree that Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, beginning with Titus Groan, created the fantasy genre. (For reference, The Lord of the Rings by J. R.R Tolkien came 9 years later.)
The setting is Gormenghast, a massive medieval castle that’s fallen into ruins, not unlike bombed-out London, where the Groan dynasty is under threat. You’ll find yourself lost in a completely different world featuring death owls, dungeons, twisted woods, and tideless seas.
This series is regularly mentioned in lists of the most significant fantasy series of the 20th century and is a must-read for fantasy fans.
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl
Anne Frank, 1947 (posthumous)
Anne Frank’s diary is a classic. Anne is a 13-year-old Jewish girl forced into hiding by the Nazis. A “Secret Annex” in an old office building in Amsterdam hid her and her family for two years.
Anne shares her own thoughts and feelings about the boredom, fear, hunger, and cruelty she faced while in hiding. Her life is chronicled until they were discovered by the Gestapo.
This book is charming, sometimes humorous, and always compelling. This is another book you may have read when you were younger, but that certainly deserves a second look through adult eyes. Anne’s life is beautifully captured in her journal and stands as a witness against evil.
The Miracle of the Bells
Russell Janney, 1947
This novel is the story of Bill Dunnigan, a great press agent, and Olga Treskovna , the pure and young Hollywood actress.
The story opens with Bill bringing Olga’s body back to her hometown in Pennsylvania ( a dirty and poor coaltown). The story ebbs and flows as it floats and back and forth through time.
It’s a faith-filled romance story of Hollywood dreams coming true. Even the most cynical readers will have their heartstrings tugged by this story of faith, friendship, and forgiveness. The movie adaptation stars Frank Sinatra and Fred McMurray.
The Living is Easy
Dorothy West, 1948
This book is a true treasure not only for the quality of the writing and story-telling but because it is one of only a handful of novels published in the 1940s by African American women.
Ms. West’s book is a brilliant example of social satire that’s as resonant today as it was nearly 100 years ago. It’s one of the first novels to ever acknowledge both the bitter legacy of slavery and the growth of an African American middle class.
Life is complicated, and this book will challenge you in every way.
Cry, the Beloved Country
Alan Paton, 1948
Cry, the Beloved Country was an instant success in 1948 and continues to be loved by all who read it.
Many consider it to be the most important South African novel ever written. Cry, the Beloved… is the searingly beautiful story of a Zulu pastor and his son set in a time and place torn by racial injustice.
Mr. Paton spins a lyrical tale about the days preceding apartheid when a black man’s country was ruled by white men. Ultimately, it’s a story of love and hope, and dignity.
When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II
Molly Guptill Manning, 2014
Curious about outraged librarians and the ASE program? A book about books, what could be better than that.
Ms. Manning shares personal accounts of how portable, readily available books changed and even saved lives during the war.
If you love books, you’ll love reading about how books are the unsung hero of WWII.
Take the 1940s Reading Challenge
Learning something new, appreciating a new perspective, or discovering a new favorite character is only one great book away. At DiscoverBooks.com, you’ll find these classics as well as many, many others from the same decade. Find something you love from the 1940s today.
Discoverbooks.com carries millions of gently used books starting at $3.85 with free shipping on orders of $12 or more to lower 48 USA. Shop now and discover something new!