When Love Stories Became Medicine for Warworn Soldiers

When Love Stories Became Medicine for Warworn Soldiers

When soldiers prepared to serve in World War I, few likely imagined they would be prescribed novels, histories, and poetry as medicine when recovering from illness or injury. Bibliotherapy, or the therapeutic use of books as medicine, is an idea as old as reading itself. During World War I, librarians and doctors worked to transform the idea that books could heal into a science. Progressive reformers hoped the reading materials they provided servicemen would serve as a literary prophylactic, discouraging immorality and encouraging good behavior. In the hands of librarians stationed at military hospitals, books became a means of exploring the therapeutic uses of reading for recovery.

Librarians prescribed the books their training led them to believe men liked, such as histories and westerns, but many men puzzlingly requested and savored love stories. To become experts of the field they hoped to create, librarians and physicians sought to explain how a genre that ostensibly appealed to women could help sick or injured servicemen. For librarian Miriam Carey, illness and injury were understood as emasculating conditions, which ostensibly explained a penchant for feminized fare such as love stories. A return to histories, westerns, and biographies became not only a sign of a return to masculinity but also a return of the good health such taste represented.

Librarians experimented with using books as medicine within the Library War Service. Formed by the Library of Congress and the American Library Association (ALA), the Library War Service created a national system to collect and distribute books to troops at home and abroad during and after the First World War. Between 1917 and 1920, the Library War Service distributed approximately seven to ten million books and magazines, built 36 camp libraries, and provided library collections to over 500 locations, including military hospitals. In 1918, the Library War Service established a hospital library service, reflecting the need for service dedicated to the sick and wounded.

[I]llness and injury were understood as emasculating conditions, explaining a penchant for feminized fare such as love stories. A return to histories, westerns, and biographies became not only a sign of a return to masculinity, but of the good health such taste represented.

Theodore Koch, a principal organizer of the Service at the Library of Congress, recalled the creation of the hospital library service in the earliest history of the Library War Service, Books in the War: The Romance of the Library War Service, published in 1919. The title framed the service as an adventure in which librarians travelled to the front lines to deliver books to soldiers in need. Koch and other librarians published books and articles to reassert the necessity of books as a treasured resource, mustered along with other essentials for the war effort by the organizing of Progressives.

Koch and his peers criticized books the public donated to the cause, such as personal diaries and books on funeral science, and indicated what books they believed would help servicemen heal. “They do not want out-of-date books of any kind,” the Hartford Courant cautioned in one public call for donations, “they do not want the kinds of books that appeal especially to women.”  Primarily, they believed fiction offered great therapeutic value, and it was the most requested type of book in hospitals. As Koch himself amended after visiting hospitals at the front, “sometimes stories are better than doctors.”

ALA publicity photographs from the period intended to solicit donations show hospital librarians on daily rounds dispensing literary cures to patients’ bedsides. They reported that their patients craved fiction, especially masculine fare like westerns and adventure books. As one hospital librarian noted, “The epidemic of authors is more common than that of disease. Periods of Zane Greyism will be followed by feverish cravings for ‘Tarzanry.” Using the language of disease, this librarian spoke to the desire patients had for books that offered escape, entertainment, and in some cases, consolation. “Old and new favorites vie with each other in popularity,” one hospital librarian noted. Soldiers requested Ivanhoe, Waverly, and Oliver Twist alongside O. Henry, Conan Doyle, and other “red-blooded fiction-detective stories and adventure stories.” Among these requests, however, librarians found that many soldiers asked for love stories, a phenomenon that they were often at a loss to explain when it seemed obvious that men should prefer more masculine fare.

While all readers might find comfort in a book, gender shaped ideas of who could best dispense books in hospitals and which stories made the best doctors. When it was founded in 1918, the Hospital Library Service was the only branch of the Library War Service to exclusively hire women librarians. At the start of the war, women had been prohibited from serving in early camp libraries, but the ALA believed women librarians were uniquely qualified to work in the Hospital Library Service. “Even the most prejudiced of the ‘old school’ officers admit that it is women and not men who are adapted to minister to the sick,” explained Caroline Webster, director of the Hospital Library Service. Women librarians used this widely-held assumption to control the department, the only one over which they had total authority within the Library War Service. From the outset, they insisted on their own credibility and approached their work with real ambition for what their service might do. They even wore uniforms of their own design to signal their professionalism.

Despite their avowed expertise over both books and the needs of readers they hoped to satisfy, hospital librarians could not explain men’s desire to read love stories. In papers presented before the ALA and in journal articles, librarians debated requests for genres that seemed outside of what they expected of male readers. Hospital librarians assumed men would prefer adventures, westerns, and history books. Love stories appealed to women, or so they assumed. This assumption shaped the ALA’s explicit request to the public not to donate them, or any genre that might appeal to women.

In a paper delivered before peers at the ALA conference in 1918, hospital librarian Miriam Carey examined the appeal of love stories to men who suffered from homesickness in particular. “What does a home-sick man choose for his reading?” she wondered. “Probably what he secretly craves is an old-fashioned love story and the librarian always takes a few with her although,” she noted, “at the outset she did not expect to find much call for such books.” Carey was not alone in expressing surprise at the request for love stories. “Yesterday a man said, ‘Give me a real love story,’” one librarian reported. “All the men laughed, but when I went to their beds, most of them said, ‘I want one like that other fellow asked for.’”

[L]ibrarians found that many soldiers asked for love stories, a phenomenon that they were often at a loss to explain when it seemed obvious that men should prefer more masculine fare.

Carey theorized that her patients’ desire for love stories stemmed from the tendency of illness to feminize. “Human nature is very much the same everywhere,” she noted, “and the man who is sick is more like his mother than his father.” This may suggest that in gravitating to romances the patient desired the comfort of women and femininity. The connection between femininity and caregiving would seem legible in a hospital where women were allowed to prescribe at the bedside exclusively because of their perceived skill at caretaking. For Carey, health became synonymous with a return to masculinity, a state she could recognize with a shift in the patients’ reading requests. “This state of mind is, however, fleeting,” she noted, “and the home-sick man will be wanting western yarns and other former favorites very soon.”

Carey’s writing on love stories in wartime hospital care reads like the laboratory notebook of a scientist carefully collecting data. Carey, like her peers, hoped that her warwork would outlast the conflict and result in a new field in which she could play a significant role. To that end, she recorded the most requested genres and titles and made connections to the conditions of those who appeared to find therapeutic value in them. She also tried to offer explanations for requests that confounded widely-held and heavily gendered assumptions. Her attempts to assign order, however, only reveal the disorder that would plague the field she and colleagues would help to create.

Readers proved as unpredictable as the effects of books librarians prescribed. As Theodore Koch noted, “a novel with a happy ending is not necessarily a stimulant to the depressed patient, who may be tempted to contrast his own wretched state with that of the happy hero. Nor is every tragedy a depressant,” he added. “A serious book may prove to be better reading for a nervous patient than something in a lighter vein – he may get new courage and a firm resolve to be master of his fate and by reading of another’s struggle against adverse circumstances.” This challenge, and Carey’s work, to meet the needs of individual readers while creating a science for widespread applications of books as medicine would set the stage for the early years of what would become bibliotherapy.

Further Reading

Online exhibit: Books as Medicine: Studies in reading, its history, and the enduring belief in its power to heal

Nancy K. Bristow. Making Men Moral: Social Engineering during the Great War (New York University Press, 1996)

Miriam E. Carey. “What a Man Reads in Hospital.” The Library Journal 43, no. 8 (August 1918): 565-567.

Theodore Wesley Koch. Book in the War: The Romance of Library War Service (Boston: Houghton MIfflin, 1919)

Frank P. Stockbridge. “Books, Books, Books, Demanded by Our Fighting Men” The Sun, November 10, 1918, Chronicling America.