The following guest post is by Abby Yochelson, English and American Literature reference specialist in the Main Reading Room, Researcher and Reference Services Division.
The phrase “books are weapons in the war of ideas” was coined by the publisher W.W. Norton, but it was made popular by President Roosevelt during World War II to contrast with Nazis burning books. One of the best ideas was the distribution of a special series of books, the Armed Services Editions (ASEs), to our service personnel during the war.
Booksellers, publishers, authors, librarians, and critics formed the Council on Books in Wartime to produce more than 122 million paperbacks for free distribution to U.S. Service Members from 1943-1947. These odd-shaped books were specifically designed to fit the pockets of the uniforms for all branches of service and to be easy to read in difficult conditions. While various attempts had been made previously to distribute books in wartime, and some paperbacks had been around prior to the ASEs, this program helped to transform the nature of publishing after the war.
A small committee selected the books with recreational reading as the first goal. It was hoped that a mixture of fiction and nonfiction titles would cater to all levels of taste. Contemporary fiction was most popular; service members could share their enjoyment with families back home who were reading the same books. Popular categories included historical novels, mysteries, books of humor, and westerns, but poetry and classics were included in the mix. In later years, nonfiction books designed to prepare soldiers for careers once they returned home were in demand.
Photos show the immensely popular books being read on the frontlines, on ships, in POW camps in Germany and Japan, in hospitals, while standing in any sort of line, and in camps and bases. They were reportedly as popular as pin-up girl illustrations and were “better than chocolate or cigarettes” for trading. General Eisenhower requested that a special set be reserved so that each service member was issued a book as they boarded the D-Day landing craft.
Service members wrote to the Council on Books in Wartime to express enthusiastic appreciation for the program. Publishers were pleased to learn that many of the letter writers mentioned that they had not been readers at home but were now hooked on books. Others wrote directly to authors expressing their thanks for helping them through horrendous situations or for reminding them of home through books such as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Chicken Every Sunday. Female authors received requests for personal advice on relationships, as well as a great many marriage proposals. Other correspondents requested guidance on becoming a writer.
These unusual books were treasured items, and many found their way back to the United States after the war where they are prized by many book collectors today.