Books in Action: The Armed Services Editions

(The following is featured in the September/October 2015 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM. John Y. Cole, director of the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, wrote the story. You can read the issue in its entirety here.) 

When books went to war, many American soldiers and sailors discovered the joy of reading.

Between 1943 and 1947, nearly 123 million copies of flat, wide and easily pocketable paperbacks were distributed by Army and Navy Library Services—free of charge—to U.S. service members around the world.

How did this happen? In 1942, U.S. Army librarian Ray Trautman and Army graphic arts specialist H. Stahley Thompson approached a publisher with their idea to distribute inexpensive paperback editions overseas. They enlisted support from the Council on Books in Wartime, a nonprofit coalition of trade publishers, booksellers and librarians who viewed books as “weapons in the war of ideas.” The council turned a good idea from the U.S. Army into an efficient cooperative enterprise that involved the Army, the Navy, the War Production Board and more than 70 publishing firms.

Designed to appeal to a wide variety of reading tastes, the Armed Services Editions included best sellers, classics, mysteries and poetry. A total of 1,324 titles were published in the series. The Library of Congress holds one of only a few complete sets that survive today.

The first title in the series was “The Education of Hyman Kaplan,” a collection of humorous stories by Leo Rosten. The author received these words from a grateful serviceman:

“I want to thank you profoundly, for myself and more important, for the men here in this godforsaken part of the globe. … Last week we received your book on Mr. Kaplan. … As an experiment, I read it one night at the campfire. The men howled. Now they demand I only read one Kaplan story a night: A ration on pleasure.”

The volumes were designed and printed to be read and discarded. While paperback volumes date to the late 15th century, the Armed Services Editions were a harbinger of the postwar mass-market approach that revolutionized American book-buying and reading habits.

Author Wallace Stegner was proud that his work, “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” was part of “that first great experiment in the mass production and mass distribution of books.” He added, “The paperback revolution that followed owed an incalculable debt to the Armed Services Editions.”

Author Irving Stone, whose works “Lust for Life” and “Immortal Wife” were included in the series, believed the book-distribution program to be “one of the most significant accomplishments of our war effort.” He recalled letters from soldiers who credited the project with their desire to “read a book straight through for the first time in their lives.”

Authors who served overseas took particular pride in the inclusion of their books. David Ewen (“Men of Popular Music” and “The Story of George Gershwin”), who served in the armed forces during World War II, said he “knew only too well what a solace books could be.”

“I myself not then being too long a civilian remember my pride at seeing the small paper edition and thinking of it going out to beguile the time of soldiers and sailors,” said novelist Herman Wouk about his work “Aurora Dawn.”

Serviceman Arnold Gates carried a copy of Carl Sandburg’s “Storm Over the Land” in his helmet during the 1944 Battle of Saipan. “During the lulls in the battle I would read what he wrote about another war and found a great deal of comfort and reassurance.” Years later, Sandburg inscribed the book for him.

Author Kay Boyle learned from retired servicemen that her book “Avalanche: A Novel of Love and Espionage” was “more or less required reading for them before they took part in missions over France.”

Amid concerns about government distribution of titles that might favor the re-election of Franklin D. Roosevelt to a fourth term, Congress passed Title V of the Soldier Voting Act of 1944. The law banned some titles from being distributed to the armed forces. A temporary ban was placed on E. B. White’s “One Man’s Meat,” though White recalled that “the boys overseas told me that my essays about life in New England reminded them of home and made them feel good about what they were doing.”

Distribution of 155,000 copies of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” to the armed forces during World War II helped spur the novel to a level of success it had not achieved in the author’s lifetime. To date, the book has sold more than 25 million copies.

“‘The Great Gatsby’ endures because it’s our most American and our most un-American novel at once: telling us the American Dream is a mirage, but doing so in such gorgeous language that it makes that dream irresistible,” says Maureen Corrigan, author of “So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures.”

How better to inspire the troops to victory?

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