14 May 2018

memoirs in print, World War II (city library, English language editions)

click image for full file view: Dewey Decimal classification 940.53... (start)
At the Grand Rapids (Michigan) Public Library there are about 42 shelves with books recounting events and experiences of the Second World War. A few are English translations of books whose authors wrote in another language. But most are told by writers whose first language is English. So this large collection, a subset of all English language titles published to date, mostly excludes the point of view and voices of non-anglophone Allies, as well as Axis combatants and others who were neutral or at least not connected directly to either the Allies or Axis leaders. Impressionistically taking a typical shelf of about 20 books, multiplying by 42 shelves, gives a crude estimate of the 840 books available to browse. The ones borrowed by patrons and the ones held in remote storage, thus, fall outside of this simple calculation.
     Thinking of the long process of drafting, editing, and working with a publisher and distributor, it is not an exaggeration to say that for every book that stands on these shelves, perhaps 2 or 3 reached the manuscript (or typescript) draft stage, but never reached the printing press (or maybe vanity press only for private circulation; not public non-fiction shelves of city libraries). And for every book ready for readers to borrow here, maybe there were 10 others that got past the day-dreaming stage and made a start with a chapter or two, but which faced delay or distraction or the author's own demise. Perhaps two or three times the number of "begun, but not completed" books developed in the mind of the potential writer, but never were set to paper - instead left to oral history or recorded in audio notes.
     Speculatively, for every published book that this library purchased, suppose there were 5 others not purchased; 15 others that were complete drafts but which never were printed for sale; 150 others that began to be set on paper but never were completed; and 400 others that took hold in the potential author's mind, but which never were committed to paper. Scaling these numbers up 100 times these speculations would mean for every 100 books of this kind there could be 500 titles to choose from (in print, but not purchased by this city library); 1500 others that were complete drafts that did reach publication; 15,000 that were begun but never completed, and 40,000 that were conceived in the potential author's mind but never took physical form. In other words, each of these approximately 840 physical books is the pinnacle of a large pyramid built of all those potential memoirs that never reached the shelf to circulate among fellow veterans of the War, their relatives and the students of history in succeeding generations.
click image for full file view: Dewey Decimal classification 940.54.. (end)

It would be interesting to know if the rate (per capita) of memoir publication were something similar to this volume of output seen from English language authors, chiefly from the countries of USA, UK, Eire, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the British Empire's Commonwealth countries, for that matter. And so long as speculation and imagination are let loose, it would also be interesting to analytically discern some of the main purposes and effects among authors in the telling and publishing of personal interpretations of events on the ground, as experienced: is there distinct therapeutic value that results from articulating "vast periods of boredom, punctuated by moments of intense violence," as some writers have described armed conflict. Or is there some sense of reckoning or justice and honor that comes from recounting the names and circumstances of others destroyed in the course of events; recording misdeeds as well as documenting other actions worthy of praise. Or is these, above all, some kind of instructive lesson about the great waste of life, resources, social fabric, and harm to the planet's creatures to be set in ink, "lest we forget." There is built-in drama, both comedy and tragedy, in the telling and reading of these pages. But that seems to be a less important function, compared to the several other purposes that may be intended by facing the details, checking facts, and polishing one's prose and verse to make it presentable for publication.
     The demographic shape of the blood-soaked edge of opposing forces is males between age 18 and 25, with a relatively slight number of 17 year olds joining up, and relatively smaller proportion of those above the age of 35. So if most of the published accounts of events and experiences come from this biggest demographic segment, then the images and words will have stuck during a formative or impressionable point of one's life and continued to shape post-war outlook and approach to problem solving. Of course, the ratio of those facing direct risk of life in combat to those who make possible the operation of uniformed military services on air, land, and sea is another kind of pyramid; not a demographic one, but a similar disproportion: every fighting man was dependent on perhaps 25 or 50 or 100 others who produced, organized, and distributed logistical needs both physical and informational. Caring for those harmed, and repairing what is ruined in the clashes, as well as the thousands of record-keepers also were instrumental to putting a pilot in the air, a sailor on a ship, or a soldier on the march. So, if the memoir writers mainly come from those people directly affected by combat, then the 840 books on these shelves is a testament to the will of those motivated and capable of putting these matters in ink. But for every title that is on the shelf and available for circulation among library card holders in 2018, more than 70 years since armed conflict ended, there must have been so many others that have not been published. And for every veteran of these wars and all others, too, many more finally reached a point in their lives and with the passage of time to be able to tell family or friends of some events and experiences that haunted them forever and ever since they occurred. But even more, perhaps, never did feel able to articulate those things that have stuck with them to the end.
     The seven-part documentary series of 2007 by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick, The War, uses four U.S. cities as intersecting lenses to tell the stories at home and in the field: Sacramento, CA; Waterbury, CT; Luverne, MN; and Mobile, AL. Condensing the global conflict into personal stories is a huge undertaking that reduces "too much information" into terms that an uninformed viewer, several generations removed from the war years, can understand or at least glimpse a little of. But looking at the 840 titles here on the shelves, patiently waiting for new readers to discover the stories told, it seems that there is much more to understand than what documentary film is capable of expressing.

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