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 in their pockets across Europe, North Africa and the Pacific.Share
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. To be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on Dec. 2, 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.
Ms. Manning, 34 years old, 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 University library, she kept finding letters from soldiers writing about the Armed Services Editions of Train’s books.
Some letters were heartbreaking. A young Marine wrote to Betty Smith, author of the best seller, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” He told her his heart was dead after watching his friend die. “He didn’t think that he was ever going to feel joy or happiness,” Ms. Manning said. For two years, he walked around in an almost comatose state. After contracting malaria he found himself in the hospital without anything to do. When he asked the nurse for a book, she gave him “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”
“He started reading it, and he could not believe that he laughed,” Ms. Manning said. “He hadn’t laughed in such a long time.”
The book also made him cry—an emotional response that relieved him. Ms. Manning was struck by the way the Marine ended his letter: “I don’t think I would have been able to sleep this night unless I bared my heart to the person who caused it to live again.”
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 Manhattan’s Chelsea Flea Market. They can cost as little as a dollar....
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.
Ms. Manning’s book also recounts a short but bizarre episode in which Congress passed a law that prevented many titles from being sent to troops overseas. In 1944, Republicans feared President Franklin D. Roosevelt would be elected to a fourth term. As they were debating a bill on sending electoral ballots to troops overseas, a Republican senator from Ohio slipped in a provision stipulating that no movie, magazine, newspaper or book purchased with government funds could contain any political propaganda.
“We think we have partisan politics today!” Ms. Manning said. If a book mentioned President Roosevelt even in passing, it couldn’t be published for the troops. The publishers fought the provision, however, and within five months it was amended.
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,” Ms. Manning said.
After the war ended and the post-war housing boom began, homes came with a new standard option for the first time in American history: built-in bookcases. (Read more.)