When American soldiers fought on the battlefields of World War II, they were carrying more than weapons. They also carried ideas — quite literally.
The Armed Services Editions, a series of specially designed pocket-size paperbacks, were introduced in the spring of 1943. Over the next four years, roughly 120 million were printed, finding their way everywhere from the beaches of Normandy to German P.O.W. camps to remote Pacific islands.
A half-opened bundle of Armed Services Editions, specially designed paperbacks that were created during World War II and sent to American soldiers in the field.Credit…James Estrin/The New York Times
The program, one of the more heroic chapters in American publishing history, is the subject of “The Best-Read Army in the World,” an exhibition at the Grolier Club in Manhattan. The show, on view through Dec. 30, is curated by Molly Guptill Manning, a law professor who accumulated more than 900 of the volumes while researching her 2014 book “When Books Went to War.”
The paperbacks were intended to help soldiers pass the time. But they were also meant to remind them what they were fighting for, and draw a sharp contrast between American ideals and Nazi book burnings.
That’s an aspect of the story that has only grown more resonant, amid today’s partisan battles over book bans. And Manning, for one, sees a clear lesson.
“During World War II, the American public came out very much one way,” she said. “And that was that there should be no restrictions on what people read.”
The idea that good soldiers needed good books didn’t start with World War II. During World War I, the American Library Association collaborated with the Army to gather and distribute donated books. Even before Pearl Harbor, the association had planned a new “Victory Book Campaign,” with the goal of collecting 10 million books in 1942. The goal was met, though there were concerns that too many were dirty, outdated or unreadable. The campaign was renewed in 1943, with a caveat that the public should donate only “good books.”
Books were seen not just as diversions, but as weapons in the fight for democracy. In American propaganda, the dedication to the free exchange of ideas was explicitly contrasted with Nazi book burnings. In a 1942 message to booksellers, President Franklin D. Roosevelt extolled freedom of expression, which was at the heart of his idea of the Four Freedoms. “No man and no force can take from the world the books that embody man’s eternal fight against tyranny,” he said.
But just how to get those weapons into soldiers hands was complicated. Shipping heavy books overseas was impractical. So in early 1943, the Council on Books in Wartime, a publishers’ group formed in 1942, approached Ray Trautman, the Army’s chief librarian, with the idea of producing special paperbacks for soldiers overseas. The result was the Armed Services Editions. which were designed to fit in either the breast or pants pocket of a standard-issue uniform.
The series mixed entertainment with more edifying fare. The first title was “The Education of Hyman Kaplan,” a collection of comic stories by Leonard Q. Ross (a pseudonym of Leo Rosten, future author of “The Joys of Yiddish”). The more than 1,300 titles that followed included literary classics, contemporary fiction, poetry, history, biography, humor and even one art book, a compilation of soldiers’ paintings.
A 1945 pamphlet credited the books with helping to create “a young, masculine reading public,” including some who may not have been eager to dig into, say, Herman Melville’s “Typee.” One Marine quoted in the exhibit said that when that book was given to him, he eventually “had nothing to do but read it.” His verdict? “Hot stuff. That guy wrote about three islands I’d been on!”
The editions also boosted the fortunes of some authors. When F. Scott Fitzgerald died in 1940, “The Great Gatsby,” published in 1925, had barely sold 20,000 copies. Then it was selected as an Armed Services Edition, and more than 120,000 copies were distributed, spurring its transformation into a classic.
In April 1944, The New York Times Book Review declared the paperbacks “as popular as pinup girls,” with more than 100,000 shipping out a day. Some bundles, according to The Times, were delivered to eager readers by parachute.
Photographs show soldiers reading them while getting a haircut, laid up in traction and facing various challenging conditions. Manning, the curator, said her favorite image is of a G.I. lying on a makeshift cot in the middle of a flooded camp in New Guinea, lost in a book. “It doesn’t look staged,” she said. “It genuinely looks like he’s relaxing.”
The books, which cost about 7 cents to produce, were distributed for free, with soldiers encouraged to pass them along until they wore out. Organizers used surveys and research trips to gauge what soldiers actually wanted to read.
One of the most popular titles — at least judging from the more than 15,000 letters from soldiers in her papers, Manning said — was Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” which was rushed out as an Armed Services Edition soon after hitting the best-seller list.
But soldiers often preferred books “that have at least an essence — to put it bluntly — of sex and a lot of it,” as one man told the council. A battered copy of “Strange Fruit,” Lillian Smith’s steamy 1944 tale of a forbidden interracial romance, shows signs of particularly heavy reading.
The program avoided titles that insulted America’s allies, or disparaged any particular group. Zane Grey’s “Riders of the Purple Sage,” for example, was canceled over concern with a character’s reference to deceitful Mormon bishops. But overall, the program took care to present a variety of books, and avoid any appearance of censorship.
Every book had a banner across the bottom, saying whether it was a “complete book” or had been abridged, to fit the maximum page count of 512. “The publishers were really against censorship,” Manning said. “They were worried that every time they cut pages so it would fit in the pocket, someone would think they were cutting ideas.”
Still, the specter of partisan bias shadowed the project. In 1944, when President Roosevelt was seeking a fourth term, Congress passed a law aimed at creating a uniform absentee ballot for soldiers. As part of the law, Republicans, concerned that Democrats were seeking to influence the military vote, included a clause stating that no material “containing political argument or political propaganda” could be distributed to troops.
The vagueness of the language sent a chill through the book program. Some planned titles were pulled, including “Yankee From Olympus” (a biography of the former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes that included a favorable depiction of President Roosevelt) and E.B. White’s “One Man’s Meat.”
Two months later, the law was amended, and all of the postponed books were released. White later wrote that he never found out why his book — a collection of essays about life on his farm in coastal Maine — had been banned, but he took it as a compliment. “It shows somebody read it,” he wrote.
The Armed Services Editions ceased publication in 1947. (The last title was Ernie Pyle’s “Home Country.”) But back home, their wild popularity helped usher in the era of the paperback, which the publishing industry had mostly dismissed as unsuitable for “quality” books.
Today, the paperback revolution has been superseded by the digital revolution, which has given soldiers free access to the world’s library on their smartphones. But after her 2014 book was published, Manning got emails from soldiers who said they sometimes still needed things to read when stuck in the field without reception or chargers.
“They said, ‘We still need paper books,’” she said. “So some things never change.”