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Memory Kits: Books of the 1940s

Memory kits are for people with dementia, memory loss, or cognitive impairment. They are intended to stimulate conversation or reminiscence with a person with cognitive issues

Books of the 1940s

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (1940)



For Whom the Bell Tolls is a novel by Ernest Hemingway published in 1940. It tells the story of Robert Jordan, a young American volunteer attached to a Republican guerrilla unit during the Spanish Civil War. As a dynamiter, he is assigned to blow up a bridge during an attack on the city of Segovia.

It was published just after the end of the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), whose general lines were well known at the time. It assumes the reader knows that the war was between the government of the Second Spanish Republic, which many foreigners went to Spain to help and which was supported by the Communist Soviet Union, and the Nationalist faction, which was supported by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. In 1940, the year the book was published, the United States had not yet entered the Second World War, which had begun on September 1, 1939, with Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland.[1]

The novel is regarded as one of Hemingway's best works, along with The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and The Old Man and the Sea.[; accessed October 21, 2022.

Image:; accessed June 29, 2023.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943)


"Few books had more influence on America's war effort than this. Which seems ironic given that it has absolutely nothing to do with war. Instead, it was one of those aforementioned titles sent to the front line to improve morale.

A coming-of-age story about a young immigrant girl whose family scrapes towards a brighter future in turn-of-the-century Brooklyn, the impact A Tree Grows in Brooklyn had on soliders was palpable and Smith fast became a wartime celebrity, receiving more fan mail than most Hollywood stars.

“I can’t explain the emotional reaction that took place in this dead heart of mine,” one Marine wrote to Smith after reading it on the battlefield. “A surge of confidence has swept through me and I feel that maybe a fellow has a fighting chance in this world after all.”

The book gave such a vivid account of childhood in urban America during the 1910s and 1920s that, in the words of one wounded soldier who wrote to Smith from hospital, “[It was like] living my life over again.”; accessed September 20, 2022.

Image:; accessed September 20, 2022.

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand (1943)


"The Fountainhead may be Donald Trump's favourite book, but don't let that put you off – it's not clear if he has actually read it. “It relates to business [and] beauty [and] life and inner emotions,” the soon-to-be-president said in 2016. “That book relates to... everything.”

Rand's first major literary success is about an individualistic architect called Howard Roark who designs skyscrapers, rails against the establishment, hates bureaucrats and blows up one of his own buildings for not being perfect enough. The book is about money, power and one man's struggle to succeed on his terms while surrounded by rivals who want to bring him down.

Rand's belief in rugged individualism (“man exists for his own sake, that the pursuit of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose”) may be polarising, but her influence on modern thought cannot be denied."' accessed September 20, 2022.

Image:; accessed June 29, 2023.


Hiroshima by John Hersey (1946)



At 8.15am on 6 August 1945, Little Boy was dropped over Hiroshima, Japan. Forty-three seconds later – at 1,890 feet above ground zero – it exploded, unleashing a single blinding inferno of pure energy that would leave more than 100,000 people dead. The lucky ones were pulverised instantly (in some cases, only their shadows remained, seared onto pavements where they stood). For others, death took longer, from days to decades.

But there were also survivors. John Hersey’s trailblazing account of the attack intertwined the stories of six of them: a young surgeon; a pastor; a tailor’s widow with three children; a prosperous doctor; a female clerk at a tin factory; and a German priest.

The 30,000-word result (first published in the New Yorker) was the biggest publishing sensation of its time, culminating in a Pulitzer Prize and international renown. Hersey’s documentary eye captured a full spectrum of feeling – panic, grief, disgust, resilience, hope – often all on the same page. Hailed as one of the greatest pieces of journalism ever written, it laid bare the true horror of nuclear weapons to the post-war generation.; accessed September 21, 2022.

Image:; accessed September 21, 2022.

The Heart of the Matter (1948)


"Graham Greene was, as the New York Times wrote in his obituary, the “novelist of the soul”. And none of his books plumbed the depths of human morality quite like The Heart of the Matter.

Set in Sierra Leone during the Second World War, where Greene himself had served, it follows Henry Scobie, a British police officer hamstrung by a personal crisis.

He is a good man and a devout Catholic, plagued by a seeping melancholia. His wife is miserable and he wants to make her happy, even though he doesn't love her. Soon, though, he meets another woman and falls in love.

What follows is a gripping tale of war, espionage, adultery and betrayal – a story of moral dilemmas – as Scobie is dragged deeper towards his own destruction in a desperate battle between conscience and desire. It is considered to be one of Greene's best books – in a packed field – and certainly one of his most memorable." accessed September 21, 2022.

Image:; accessed June 29, 2023.

Native Son by Richard Wright (1940)


"The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever,” the heavyweight literary critic Irving Howe famously wrote in 1963. “[It] brought out into the open, as no one ever had before, the hatred, fear, and violence that have crippled and may yet destroy our culture."

Native Son was a sensation from the moment it was published, selling 215,000 copies in two weeks and shooting Wright to everlasting fame.

It tells the story of a young black man, so angry at the weight white society places on black lives that he murders a white woman and burns her body. Such is his exhilaration at what he's done that he then tries to extort money from her relatives, fails, and kills his black girlfriend instead. He goes to the electric chair without a shred of remorse.

“Nobody in America had ever before told a story like this,” wrote the critic Louis Menand 1991. In other words, as black writers such as Wright emerged into mainstream culture, America could no longer pretend it could gloss over its racist past. The anger was real; scars don't just disappear."; accessed September 20, 2022.

Image:; accessed September 20, 2022.

The Little Prince by Antoine du Saint-Exupery (1943)


Having sold an estimated 140 million copies worldwide, the French aristocrat's fable of a planet-hopping prince in search of happiness remains one of the best-selling and the most-translated books ever published.

Saint-Exupéry wrote the children's book in New York, where he had fled from his Nazi-occupied homeland. It tells the story of an aviator, downed in the desert, who comes across a young prince from a distant asteroid who's been travelling the galaxy in order to cure his loneliness and gain a better understanding of adult behaviour. He is not impressed by what he finds.

While certainly influenced by the atmosphere of the Second World War, the book's themes of loneliness, friendship, love and childhood nostalgia turn the story more towards an allegory for the frailty of human nature and narrow-mindedness of the adult world.

As Saint-Exupéry wrote in 1943: “For centuries, humanity has been descending an immense staircase whose top is hidden in the clouds and whose lowest steps are lost in a dark abyss. We could have ascended the staircase; instead we chose to descend it.”; accessed September 20, 2022.

Image:; accessed October 1, 2022.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (1945)


A prolific author already, Waugh's 10th novel was by far his most popular. And boy, was it popular. It proved such a hit in 1945 that he once said, with evident discomfort, that it “led me into an unfamiliar world of fan-mail and press photographers.”

A novel of nostalgia, aristocracy and Catholicism, Brideshead Revisited charts the life and loves of Charles Ryder, particularly through his friendship with a family of wealthy English Catholics who live in a palatial mansion called Brideshead Castle.

It transported war-weary readers back to a golden age before the bombs fell – a world of money and privilege. It was, as Christopher Hitchens wrote in 2008, “an elegy for a dying class, and also a warning against the disillusionments that would accompany 'the century of the common man'.”; accessed September 21, 2022.

Image:; accessed September 21, 2022.

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl (1947)


Sadly, this is not fiction. But Anne Frank's diary of her time hiding from the Nazis in occupied Amsterdam is far too important a book to be frozen by any label of genre – it is a diary but also a memoir; a narrative but also an argument; a coming-of-age confession but also a historical text. And it's much more than just a classic.

Frank began writing it on June 14 1942, shortly after her 13th birthday, from behind a bookcase in a concealed attic space in her father's office building. There, she and her family hid for more than two years before their capture.

Written in the form of letters to several imaginary friends, the diary was far from just a record of a life in hiding (“We still love life, we haven’t yet forgotten the voice of nature, and we keep hoping”). It was also an unfolding psychological drama of adolescence – the challenges of sexuality, battles with her mum, her maturing worldview – by a girl whose wisdom and creative power well outweighed her years.

Published in 1947, hers became the defining voice of the Holocaust – a voice that, as Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg wrote at the time, “[spoke] for six million—the voice not of a sage or a poet but of an ordinary little girl."; accessed on September 21, 2022.

Image:; accessed September 21, 2022.

The Naked and the Dead (1948)



“Yeah, fighting a war to fix something works about as good as going to a whorehouse to get rid of a clap.” That's the kind of guts-on-the-table wisdom that made Norman Mailer's first novel such a literary hot potato.

The Naked and the Dead is a graphic and intimate portrait of the brutal realities of jungle warfare about a platoon fighting in the Philippines Campaign in the Second World War, shaped partially by his experiences as a cook with the 112th Cavalry Regiment. Angry, obscene and chest-thumpingly political, it parachuted the 25-year-old author onto the postwar literary scene like a surprise invasion. British attorney general Hartley Shawcross told the House of Commons it was "foul, lewd and revolting", while George Orwell called "the best book of the last war yet."

Still, no one was better at praising Mailer better than Mailer, who called it “possibly the greatest book written since War and Peace". Whether he was right or not, The Nake and the Dead was gut-punchingly good, shocking in its unflinching portrayal of ordinary men in the viscera of battle. And it launched a career that would make Mailer one of the great chroniclers of America's post-war era."; accessed September 21, 2022.

Image:; accessed October 1, 2022.

1984 (1949)



"Orwell was dying when he wrote 1984. In the grip of terminal tuberculosis, he had squirrelled himself away in a remote Scottish farmhouse to rush out what would become the definitive novel of the 20th century (he once said it, “wouldn’t have been so gloomy if I had not been so ill”). He died before he could ever know the impact it would have on the world.

Originally entitled The Last Man in Europe, his dystopic vision of a totalitarian future in which the population is constantly monitored and manipulated was, in the words of the New York Herald Tribune, as 'timely as a label on a poison bottle.' Others described it as an earthquake and a bundle of dynamite.

Emerging from the ravaged landscape of total war, in a nation weary, hungry and grey, 1984 has never lost its relevance, a fact demonstrated by the extent to which its concepts and terminology – Big Brother, Newspeak, Double Think, Room 101 – have bled into our language like antibodies for a totalitarian infection.

To this day, it remains impossible to talk about propaganda, surveillance and paranoid politics without dropping a reference to Orwell's masterpiece."' accessed September 21, 2022.

Image:; accessed September 21, 2022.