In 1942, as war entered American life, a non-profit, government funded group called the Council on Books in Wartime was created and staffed by some of the largest names in the publishing business. The Council’s aim was to maintain the will to fight through information, printing books about how the war was being won and about the enemy. Books, the council felt were the “Weapons in the War of Ideas”.
For men and women serving overseas boredom was a more persistent enemy than the Germans or the Japanese. The Council on Books in Wartime felt reading was the perfect solution and endeavored to get books to soldiers. Believing in the patriotic and generous American spirit the council organized book donation drives. Americans responded, donating thousands of books. The drive was a great victory but the victor was the American public.
Although the Council netted large numbers of books, the majority of tomes would put a strain on a soldier’s attention span. The Council book drives had given the public a chance to pass on volumes no one would want to read while feeling patriotic about doing it. In May of 1943 the Council decided “American soldiers were going to have books, even if the Army had to buy them itself”. A plan was drafted to purchase an initial 50,000 books for the armed forces. But this plan was not a solution.
Even with reading material available, soldiers weighed down with army equipment did not have room to carry a hardbound novel, even paperback books were not pocket sized. The Council decided the best answer to the problem would be to print the books themselves. Using magazine rotary presses thousands of books could be made to give to bored soldiers. From a business standpoint, it gave publishing houses a cheap, easy way to expose a captive new market to reading. The solution seemed obvious but there was one problem—money.
The problem wasn’t finding the cash to print the books or distributing them. The problem was if popular books were given away, who would buy them after the war? Publishing houses would be flooding the market with free books that could be taken home and sold second hand when the boys came home. Companies would be giving away millions of dollars worth of a reusable products, cheating authors and booksellers out of business by a good but unsound patriotic deed. The problem was solved in two ways: one, books for the armed forces would only be available overseas, not competing with the US market. And two, they would be printed on cheap paper that would fall apart with multiple readings.
Actually printing the books proved challenging. The rotary printing presses available were designed to print magazines not books. To navigate around this problem, two separate books were printed as one, magazine size, one on top of the other, then cut in half. Short paged books were printed in Reader’s Digest size and long volumes in pulp magazine size resulting in books measuring 5 1/2 by 3 7/8 inches or 6 1/2 by 4 1/2 inches respectively. The books were sold to the military at cost of about six cents per volume plus ten percent overhead, with authors and publishers receiving a half cent each per book.
Titles were decided upon by a committee that tried to cater to “all levels of tastes within reasonable limits” and had to be acceptable to both the Army and the Navy. Minor disagreements arose between the committee which wanted to print serious literary works, and the Army that wanted popular best sellers, westerns and mysteries, while the Navy held opinions somewhere in between the other two. Works deemed anti-democratic, offensive to an ally or religious or racial group were excluded.
Starting in September 1943, Armed Service Edition books found their way to the front line in the Pacific as men traveled from island to island before entering the combat zone. In England in June 1944, each soldier boarding an invasion ship for Normandy was given an Armed Service Edition book. Newspapers reported at the time that, although many things were found discarded from soldiers packs before going into D-Day, not a single book was left behind.
From 1943 to 1947 nearly 123 million copies of 1,322 different titles on all subjects were printed and became the only type of book reliably available to service personnel overseas. Authors received hundreds of letters from people who before the war had never finished reading a single book. Some would meet ex-servicemen years later telling them how they had read their book in a foxhole in France, in some Pacific jungle, or in a frigid Alaskan or Icelandic outpost. The most reprinted book was Webster’s New Handy Dictionary, a book that depression kids with little education wanted to help them understand the new written world given them.
The men and women of World War Two came home with something other than memories of war, they came back with educations in history, the arts, poetry, science and popular fiction, all from little books named Armed Service Editions, a side effect of a war.