Reading Books at War: references in the letters

Jack Donaldson  was a voracious reader. In his letters home from the war he mentions so many books that I thought a brief essay on ‘a soldier’s reading list’ might be interesting.  Reading books at war seems odd, but of course there were moments between the activity and for a voracious reader this was a great relief from the stress. Many of the books are now fairly dated, but the quantity consumed is staggering. Most of the heavy reading was when he was travelling for 6 weeks by ship out to Egypt in November 1940, and another heavy session when he was in hospital with jaundice, but there is plenty in between as well. Some of the time he was working exceptionally long hours – 3 hours sleep a night at times – but he almost always read a few words at some point.

The other interesting fact is the supply of books. There were occasional places with libraries, but most were sent out from England. It is interesting that, though interrupted and not completely reliable, the post out to the army was good and therefore good books to read while at war were fairly readily available.  By contrast, he mentions a British civilian in France who had not been able to communicate with his wife in England for 16 months.

Jack’s Reading in 1939 1940 and 1941

It has been fascinating to find that nearly every book he read is still listed and available today, nearly 80 years later.

11/9/39   Send me Hogben’s Mathematics for the Million, and the Left Book Club National Capitalism (See Gollancz).



1/10/39  The D.A. calls it Murder (Erle Stanley Gardner)erle stanley Gardner



book Anna Kerenina2/10/39  Tolstoi hasn’t arrived yet, but I must say I look forward to Perry Mason more, as I brought Anna Karenina and haven’t read more than ten pages



31/10/39  Peter Cheyney and Karol Kapek arrived yesterday, very welcome indeed. I’ve already started P.C. and he seems quite up to form. Mathematics for the Million and Erle Stanley Gardner came the day before, and I’ve now got a lovely library.

23/11/39  I’m sending you back one Erle Stanley Gardner, one Peter Cheyney, one Rex Stout and one Graham Greene. The last two are really good, the P.C. about up to form, and the E.S.G a little below. I got Agatha Christie and another E.S.G. the day before yesterday.


Rogue Male ny Geoffrey Household27/12/39  I read half of Rogue Male, the new Geoffrey Household, very good indeed.

29/12/39  I finished Rogue Male — I thought it one of the best unimportant books I’ve read for ages. I’m now half way thro’ the Wodehouse Leonora sent me, and giggling enough to madden the bridge-players.  Later: I’m amused and sorry you didn’t like Rogue Male. I expect you’re right and perhaps it is a bit bogus, but I found it well written and couldn’t put it down.

Bernard Shaw: In good King Charles's Golden days1/2/40  I’ve been reading Shaw’s latest, King Charles’s Golden Days, which Broad sent me for Xmas. It’s quite unreadable.



g3/2/40  (while ill)  I think the perfect parent-child relationship is good because it is incomplete, and can only be good if both parties are content to let it remain incomplete. I’ve been reading an inadequate book by Joanna Cannon which gave rise to these thoughts. Lying in bed I have a lot of time to think of you and the children, which is nice.  PS. Will you order a copy of Tom Cole’s book and send it to Aunt Isy? It’s called Gods in the Making. T.Mawby Cole, published by Andrew Dakers. 2 days later: I had a look at Tom Cole’s book this morning. It seems too crazy for words. All about life-cycles and things. I saw a picture in my mind’s eye of you and me bowling down eternity on a couple of bicycles. 3 weeks later: I’ve just finished Tom Cole’s book. it’s an odd affair, but it rings true in places. He’s very keen on “the creative power of positive thought”. If we sit and mope at our separation and dwell on it, in a sense we give it strength. But if we concentrate on the farm and our life to come, then we really bring them nearer. His complete and absolute confidence in the indestructibility of the spirit is rather comforting.

England Made Me Graham Greene6/2/40  I also read “England Made Me” by G. Greene. He’s such a brilliant writer you can’t put him down, but his mind is too warped.


What Happened to France by Gordon Waterfield19/11/40  I finished Columbus and read Gordon Waterfield’s What  Happened to France which I thought very good.

Dead Nead by John Masefield

I’m now reading Dead Ned by Masefield. If my eyes don’t go on me I shall get a lot of reading done.


 Fear and Courage by Edward Glover21/11/40  I’ve begun Gibbon, Glover on Fear and Courage, a book on Arabic and a bad novel from the library. The convoy is a lovely sight, and now we’re heading south.


Memoirs of a Slave Trader by Thomas22/11/40  It’s getting milder already. I think in 2 days it will be hot. I’m reading Memoirs of a Slave Trader, Gibbon, and Edward Thompson’s “An Indian Day”. But nothing is any fun separated. Reading various books about different people at different times, the Romans, the African slavers, the Indians, I feel it’s not much good trying to understand or help anyone. It’s probably best to stick to what one does understand, the family, and function from the home farm, thro’ the village if necessary, on to county, country and world if you like, but keeping nose as tight as possible to family grindstone, the only thing I love or believe in.


An Indian Day by

Decline and Fall by E Gibbon


28/11/40  I read The Square Peg by Masefield yesterday. I am just going to begin Sylvia Scarlett.

Compton Mackenzie Winds of Love Compton Mackenzie Winds of Love Compton Mackenzie Winds of Love Compton Mackenzie Winds of Love Sylvia Scarlett book

11/12/40  There’s a good ship’s library on board and I’ve read a lot, in particular East and South Winds of Love (Compton Mackenzie).

Guilty Men by "Cato"2/12/40  I read “Guilty Men” yesterday, which was great fun. A little bit easy on the Labour Party over disarmament. I’m reading the East Wind of Love, a bit long-winded, but as all four are in the ship’s library I thought it might be worth tackling. I’ve finished the first volume of Gibbon. I find him a great standby. A superficial study of that period does ram home how simply frightful quite decent seeming people can be in the pursuit of power. I think Compton Mackenzie’s Winds of Love are really good.

Eric Ambler The Mask of Dimitrios3/12/40  I read half Corduroy, by Adrian Bell, and a good thriller by Eric Ambler, recommended by Duthie, called “Mask of Dimitrios”.Corduroy by Adrien Bell




5/12/40  I’m reading Mme Curie, by her daughter, a novel by Cecil Roberts called “They wanted to live” and Laski’s “Where do we go from here?”. I think there’s an awful danger of anti-semitism after the war in England. It really worries me. I’ve had several arguments here, and they’re all people who wouldn’t be cruel themselves, but feel bitter enough to let someone else be. It would be awful to go thro’ this bloody war just to imitate the Nazis. I think I hate them for their hatred of the Jews more than for anything else.

Madame Curie by Eve CurieThey wanted to live by Cecil Roberts







     6/12/40  I’ve just read a good book by Vincent Sheean called “A Day of Battle




Prescott History of Peru7/12/40  I’ve nearly finished Mme Curie. It’s a very moving book. When her husband, who was as great as she was, was killed in an accident I nearly cried. Separation is undoubtedly a sort of pale experience of the final one of death, which makes one more than usually sympathetic. I want to get Prescott’s “History of the Conquest of Peru” but I expect I can get it out here.

A L Strong China Fights for Freedom8/12/40  I’m reading Anna Louise Strong’s “China fights for freedom” and an excellent book called “Sanda Mala” by Maurice Collis, who wrote “Siamese White”.

Siamese White Maurice Collis









22/12/40  I’ve just been reading Werth’s “The Last Days of Paris”.







A G Macdonell Flight from a LadySilver Ley by Adrian BellXmas Day ’40   I’ve been reading A.G. Macdonnell’s “Flight from a Lady”, and Adrian Bell’s “Silver Ley”.

John Masefield The hawbucks27/12/40  I read Masefield’s “The Hawbucks” yesterday. You’d like it — it’s mostly about hunting.




Graham Greene The Power and the Glory29/12/40  I’m reading Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory”, and Aunt Isy’s “The Bible Comes Alive” by Charles Marston.




    Bernard Shaw Back to methuselah  12/1/41  I’ve been reading Shaw’s “Back to Methuselah”. He’s an amazing chap. He has a lovely way of taking the ethics of socialism for granted which is very refreshing.




The Strange Case of Miss Annie Spragg by Louis Bromfield25/2/41  I’m reading “The Strange Case of Annie Spragg” by Louis Bromfield.




2/4/41  The Brigadier has just lent me a most interesting book, a history of Palestine by de Haas. Did you know that the Jews were farmers par excellence, that Palestine had never been so fertile as under their hands in the first two or three centuries A.D.? And that in Roman times the Jews were regarded as the bravest, most stubborn and intractable lovers of freedom in the world? They revolted twice against Rome, and put up a far better show than Britain or Gaul, and ended every time by dying rather than give in. Curious, isn’t it, that now we say “You never see a Jew doing work with his hands”, and “The Jews have no guts”. I think the secret is land. If they have their own land they’ll work and fight for it too. So we must get them some land. But where?

(Jacob de Haas (13 August 1872 – 21 March 1937) was a Jewish journalist and an early leader of the Zionist movement, who propagated the movement in the United States)

Trent's Last case by EC Bentley28/4/41  I’m reading Trent’s Last Case again. (by E C Bentley – 1900) I’ve quite forgotten it. It’s very readable. I’m going to get, and re-read Jurgen by James Branch Cabell, in Penguin.

3/5/41  We’ve been so busy lately that I’ve barely had time to write, and it’s take me three weeks to read Trent’s Last Case.

28/5/41  Tell Leonora (Cazalet) 30 terrific Penguins arrived yesterday. It was a real beanfeast and I’m tremendously pleased and grateful.

Jurgen by James Branch Cabell1/6/41  I’m reading and enjoying Jurgen. I wonder if you would?





Famous Prophecies about the War (WWII)23/8/41 I bought a Faber book called “Famous prophecies about the war”. Two of them say December 21st 1941. I prophesy February 1942.





The GUn by CS Forester1/9/41  Reading “The Gun” by C.S. Forester, quite excellent.




20 years agrowing by Maurice O'sullivan23/9/41  I’ve just read “20 years a ‘growing” by Maurice O’Sullivan. First class of the poetic school.





History of Mr POlly by H G Wells29/9/41  Reading History of Mr Polly, always one of my favourite books, which has cheered me up.

22/10/41  I read one of Plummy’s (PGW) articles in Picture Post and thought it very good. Of course he oughtn’t to do it, and someone ought to tell him, but it was very good all the same.


The Rights of man by H G Wells10/11/41   I’ve been reading Wells’ “The Rights of Man” — too negative and too concerned with preserving rights instead of being prepared to fight for the right, which we’re likely to have to do after the war. Leonora has sent another bundle of Lifes and New Yorkers, which make our mess very civilized.


For Whom the Bell Tolls Ernest Hemingway19/11/41  Hemingway arrived. I’ve only just begun it but shall love it. (Probably for whom the Bell Tolls)

22/11/41  I got down to Hemingway to-day. I don’t know why you don’t think he’s first class. I’m sure he is. He isn’t even faintly sentimental in a bad sense, but he’s not ashamed of talking about real feelings in a moving way….. I’m being very moved by Hemingway. I hope you won’t let the intellectuals make you think it isn’t the best because it’s tender and moving. They forget how sentimental, in that sense, Shakespeare, the Brontes, Dickens and hundreds of others were. It’s only the moderns that aren’t allowed to write about emotion for fear of being like Ouida. (The pseudonym of the English novelist Maria Louise Ramé)

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy14/12/41  I’m getting into War and Peace.






Continued in Jack’s reading Part 2

A Woman's War