For the first half of the 1940s Britain was in the grip of war, followed, once the war ended, by years of austerity and hardship. So what about reading habits during those years? Was there still an attraction in the escapism offered by a good book? It seems the answer was ‘Yes’. Despite paper rationing, labour shortages and even the difficulties of censorship, people were still keen to read. Here is a snapshot of ten books published during the 1940s that – according to Goodreads – helped to shape that decade.
- 1984 by George Orwell
- Animal Farm by George Orwell
- The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
- The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupéry
- The Stranger by Albert Camus
- A Streetcar named Desire by Tennessee Williams
- Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren
- Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
- For the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
- A Tree grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
A pretty eclectic mix, containing significant books that remain on the bestsellers’ list today. And with national enthusiasm for public libraries reaching its peak in the 1930s free access to ‘a good book’ was often only a walk or a bus ride away. Even better than that were the mobile libraries that circulated in many localities, bringing books to each street on a weekly basis. Vans of various sizes were kitted out with bespoke shelving, enabling 800 to 900 books to be displayed. The first mobile library van did its rounds in Scotland in the 1920s, but they were soon to be found in most British towns and villages.
(It’s a 1960s mobile library that forms the setting for my first Sussex Crime series, run by young library and amateur sleuth, Janie Juke. You can find out more by browsing through the following titles: The Tapestry Bag, Lost Property, The Invisible Case.)
But just like every other aspect of life, books and libraries were severely affected during the war years. It is estimated that some 54,000 children’s books and more than one million other books were destroyed as a result of bombings and fire damage during the Second World War.
However, Britain’s love of reading would not be squashed. Libraries – both mobile and fixed – continued to thrive. Today there are nearly 4,000 UK libraries with more seven million active borrowers enjoying their frequent visits.