A decade after the Nazis’ 1933 book burnings, the U.S. War Department and the publishing industry did the opposite – printing 120 million miniature, lightweight paperbacks for U.S. troops to carry across Europe, North Africa and the Pacific.
The books were Armed Services Editions, printed by a coalition of publishers with funding from the government and shipped by the Army and Navy. The largest of them were only three-quarters of an inch thick—thin enough to fit in the pocket of a soldier’s pants. Soldiers read them on transport ships, in camps and in foxholes. Wounded and waiting for medics, men turned to them on Omaha Beach, propped against the base of the cliffs. Others were buried with a book tucked in a pocket.
“When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II” by Molly Guptill Manning tells the story of the Armed Services Editions. Published recently, the book reveals how the special editions sparked correspondence between soldiers and authors, lifted “The Great Gatsby” from obscurity, and created a new audience of readers back home. The program was conceived by a group of publishers, including Doubleday, Random House and W. W. Norton. In 1942 they formed the Council on Books in Wartime to explore how books could serve the nation during the war. Ultimately, the program transformed the publishing industry. “It basically provided the foundation for the mass-market paperback,” said Michael Hackenberg, a bookseller and historian. It also turned a generation of young men into lifelong readers.
Manning stumbled across the story of the wartime editions while doing research for her first book, “The Myth of Ephraim Tutt,” which explores the career of courtroom-thriller writer Arthur Train. Poring through the Charles Scribner’s Sons archives at the Princeton library, she kept finding letters from soldiers writing about the Armed Services Editions of Train’s books.
The books weren’t intended to last more than six readings. But many of them have survived. Ms. Manning owns nearly 900 of them, stacked neatly on two bookcases in her Manhattan apartment. She finds them online and occasionally at flea markets. They can cost as little as a dollar. The most popular titles fell into two categories. The soldiers loved nostalgic books like “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” They also loved books with sex scenes.
The books weren’t just a diversion. “When the men were trapped, literally, in these holes, it was incredibly stressful,” Manning said. “As one man described it, he knew he could die at any second and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. But he happened to have a book in his pocket. It helped him keep his mental bearings.”
Remarkably, the books also helped rescue “The Great Gatsby” from oblivion. When it was first printed, “The Great Gatsby” garnered poor reviews and failed to sell. Then it was selected for an Armed Services Edition, as the publishers scoured their backlists for books that might appeal to young men. Some 155,000 copies were printed and shipped overseas. Soldiers mentioned the book in their letters home. Although they weren’t allowed to say where they were stationed or what they were doing they could use the book as a talking point with their families. “Gatsby” started to gain steam at home, eventually becoming the classic it is today.
By the end of the war, the Armed Services Editions had ushered in a new era for the publishing industry, which had previously balked at printing paperbacks. The experiment showed that if books could be printed in an affordable way, publishers could reach a new audience. “So the 25-cent paperback was basically born, and it flourished after the war,” Manning said.
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