In late March and early April 1938, the Manchester Guardian ran a competition inviting readers to send in 'a List, with short reasons, of Six Books with which to Furnish a Gas-proof Room' 1 -- that is, a room designed to provide a temporary refuge in a gas attack. The article which discussed the entries began by noting that 'A gas-proof room is not a desert island, at least from a literary point of view', because desert island books are meant to be aids in survival, whereas those in a shelter are intended to divert the mind from dwelling on the danger of poison gas. So,
The competitor from Ulverston who suggested Bacon's "Novum Organum," "The Last Days of Pompeii," "The City of Dreadful Night," "Paradise Lost," "Sighs from Hell," by Bunyan, and Blair's "Grave" presumably knows his own mind better than anyone else does, but most people would say that the furniture of such a room would only be complete with a revolver to be used in case the gas and bombs and literature all failed to do their work.
Despite this admonishment, many of the entries displayed a rather dark humour:
Talking about once-obtainable foods will obviously be THE diversion in the War to end Civilisation. No better guide, then, to the menu of one's dreams than "Mrs. Beeton."
To the common suggestion of Who's Who, the Guardian responded by saying that this 'would easily, in an air raid, take on the appearance of an anthology of brief obituaries'.
Other submissions were more practical:
The books must steady jittery nerves by distracting the mind from business overhead. Whilst entertainment is required, purely light literature is useless, since it does not demand sufficient concentration. Humour only irritates in moments of strain. Books giving something to do are, therefore, best.
Though just how many people could be bothered with 'A Book of Mathematical Problems' or 'Any Chosen Work in Foreign Tongue, and a glossary for it' may be questioned!
While some suggestions were fairly optimistic -- 'Holiday Guide. -- To plan the next holidays' -- others, quite naturally, despaired of humanity:
Pope. -- For a reminder that men were once civilised.
Boswell's "Johnson." -- For a reminder that men were once sensible.
Urquhart's "Rabelais." -- For a reminder that there are better kinds of nonsense than dropping gas bombs.
So, who won? Douglas Rawson (or perhaps Hawson) of Malton in Yorkshire. His list had a bit of everything:
"Anatomy of Melancholy." -- For general reading.
Italian Phrase-book. -- In case of visitors.
German Phrase-book. -- Same reason.
Family Bible. -- Exhibiting Aryan descent.
Students' Song-book. -- For community singing.
Telephone Directory. -- To call doctors, &c., or locksmith if door combination forgotten.
It might be interesting to know what reading material people actually took with them into shelters during the Blitz. Some insight could no doubt be gleaned from diaries, especially Mass-Observation ones. Did people want to be amused while the bombs fell? Educated? Tested? Though amusing, the Manchester Guardian competition quoted here does not, I think, have much bearing on the question: the readership (middle class, left-Liberal, I suppose largely Mancunian) was small and not particularly representative. More importantly, people would have submitted lists which they thought would catch the judge's eye, in the hopes of winning the prize (two guineas), rather than the books they would really take into the refuge with them. Even more importantly, perhaps, when the air raids did eventually come, they were mostly at night, and shelterers (from HE and incendiaries rather than gas) were generally more concerned to get some sleep than to feed their heads.
Still, it's a fascinating little glimpse into the grim humour with which the British were facing up to the horrors they believed were coming:
But perhaps in the end we should all be pessimists enough to reach out automatically for Jeremy Taylor's little treatise on A.R.P. -- "Holy Living and Holy Dying." Its advantage is, of course, that, supposing the precautions did work after all, we could concentrate on the first half.
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- Manchester Guardian, 28 March 1938, p. 5. All other quotes from "Literature and gas", Manchester Guardian, 6 April 1938, p. 6.