The most preferred genres of reading with soldiers through the wars were those that offered some element of escape and entertainment.
In the First World War, much of what was read or requested tended to be escapist fare with sentimental and adventure novels pre-dominating. Most choices were guided by factors such as availability and familiarity. A favourite genre with pre-war readers and soldiers was the adventure-thriller. This might include the spy adventures of John Buchan (1875-1940), the crime thrillers of William LeQueux (1864-1927) or the romance thrillers of Anthony Hope (1863-1933). Beyond the adventure-thriller genre, a number of other genres and authors appealed to soldiers. Nat Gould was perhaps troops’ favourite or, at least, most requested author. Soldiers also took an interest in reading sentimental novels. Hall Caine (1853-1931) and Charles Garvice (1850-1920), for example, were authors frequently mentioned in both official requests and in private letters and diaries of soldiers. A further illustration of the appeal of sentimental writing is found in the popularity of American novelist Jean Webster (1876-1916). Webster was the author of two popular novels, Daddy Long Legs (1912) and Dear Enemy (1915); both are mentioned in several Australian soldiers’ accounts of their wartime reading. Australian officer John Gilbert Jacob chose to read Daddy Long Legs because a nursing sister recommended it. Alf Stewart read Daddy Long Legs in May 1917 and noted it as ‘a very pretty and novel kind of book.’(Diary entry in Margaret Willmington, Willmington, Alfred Robert Morison Stewart, p. 251)
The appeal of these books operated at various levels. Many offered escapism in their popular, usually easy-to-read narratives. They often dealt with personal quests by heroes – which might have appealed both in terms of the identification with individual heroism (of which there was little opportunity for pursuing in the impersonal machine of trench warfare) and in terms of the triumph of the human spirit (good defeating evil). Books with a romantic or sentimental plot or sub-plot likely also touched a chord with many soldiers missing family and loved ones.
For individual readers, serious literature often sat alongside the reading of more popular novels. Reg Telfer, for example, kept detailed lists of books he bought, many purchased on leave in England. His list included War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, Nana by Emile Zola, Guy de Maupassant’s short stories, John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps and O. Henry’s Cabbages and Kings. (Reg Telfer, Dad’s War – Diaries 1915-1919 (C. Taplin, 1996), p. 157) Another list, which recorded all the books he purchased from bookseller E.G. Miles in London while on leave in 1917, included volumes by Zola, George Bernard Shaw, Balzac, Haggard, Kipling, Twain, C.J. Dennis, Arthur Conan Doyle and Oliver Wendell Holmes.
In World War II, the most consistently popular libraries with Australian soldiers were Circulating Box Libraries (CBLs) and Pocket Libraries, both of which contained a lot of fictional material, and which included popular genres such as detective fiction and Westerns. One Education Officer reported that for his library, ‘nine out of ten men come looking for light reading’ and the ‘tenth man seeks a good class novel, or a popular work on current affairs’. (AES Newsletter, (March 1945), p. 6)
What books did servicemen read and reflect upon in this war? From evidence available beyond AES library lists, many appear to have engaged in a range of reading from various Penguins to Gone with the Wind. Leslie Harold Sullivan, pilot and avid filmgoer, was a regular reader. His letters home indicate he was bored a lot of the time, with films, newspapers, magazines and books filling up his free time. In March 1945, he turned his attention to Margaret Mitchell’s popular historical romance Gone with the Wind. In just two days, he read ‘all 600 pages of it, and found it hard to put down’. (Sullivan, Not to be Shot At, p. 151) Through early 1942, soldier Norman McCall Tulloh read a variety of books while stationed in Darwin and with time on his hands, including a Western, a book by Jerome K. Jerome, The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel and some of a Reader’s Digest. (Tulloh Papers, Australian War Memorial) Second AIF soldier Ken Sillcock preferred more serious reading. In North Africa in 1941, he read the non-fiction New Ways of War, pleased that it echoed his own criticisms of the army; in April 1942, on the way back to Australia, he read Conrad and Dickens ‘as a change from some of the inferior detective and wild west yarns that have been about.’ (Sillcock Papers, Australian War Memorial)
Australian soldiers in Vietnam found various opportunities to read as evidenced in their diaries and letters, but few comment or reflect on what they read. David Bradford, a doctor in Vietnam, was sent a variety of books from friends and family, including detective and spy novels, and books by writers such as P.G. Wodehouse (of whom he was a fan) and John Buchan (who he described as ‘that dreadful old imperialist’.) (Bradford, Gunners’ Doctor, pp. 37, 63, 87) Later in the war, Bradford wrote home to his father thanking him for all the books and other presents sent to him while overseas: ‘The books particularly have been a real help on this operation – I’ve done a lot of reading.’ (p. 193)
See my articles, ‘Australian Soldiers and the World of Print during the Great War’ in M.E. Hammond and S. Towheed (eds.) Publishing in the First World War: Essays in Book History Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2007, pp. 93-109 and ‘Finding “Another Great World”: Australian Soldiers and Wartime Libraries’, Library Quarterly Vol. 76, No. 4, October 2006, pp. 420-437 (special edition ‘Retrieving Readers: the Library Experience’) pp. 420-437. I also explore the reading experiences of Australian soldiers in my forthcoming book, Boredom is the Enemy: the Imaginative and Intellectual Worlds of Australian Soldiers in the Great War and Beyond (Ashgate).