I very much enjoy reading books about WWII, both fiction and non-fiction.
And Jim Benn’s novels have become great favorites of mine.
He just published A Mortal Terror, his sixth in the Billy Boyle series.
And like all of his others, I highly recommend it.
Armed Services Editions
The Second World War produced many fundamental societal changes in addition to the world-wide destruction. The war signaled the end of empires, the beginning of women in the workplace on a large scale basis, and brought the United States to the center of the world stage. It also caused advancements in medicine and technology that far outstripped what had been thought achievable during the Great Depression scant years before.
One great change that is not widely understood is near and dear to those of us who write for a living: reading. World War II changed the reading habits of a generation, and that generation went home after the war with powerful notion that having books close at hand was a good idea. Paperbacks, especially.
Paperback editions were a relatively new idea when the war broke out. Penguin Books was launched in Great Britain in 1935, followed by Pocket Books in the U.S. in 1939. While many thought the wartime rationing of paper would send the publishing industry into a tailspin, the opposite was true. Publishers geared up paperback printing on cheap paper, fueling the demand for a quick, inexpensive escape from factory shifts, the boredom of troop transports, and other wartime activities. Travel restrictions meant more people at home, and paperbacks were good company.
Publishers began to encourage readers to share their paperbacks with servicemen once they were done. The American Library Association and the Red Cross organized book donations, distributing books to military installations in the U.S. via their Victory Book Campaign. This effort was overwhelmed by the demand and logistical problems. Books were not a standard size, and often the titles donated were cast-offs of little interest.
In 1942, the Council on Books in Wartime was formed. It was a non-profit organization of publishers, booksellers, librarians and authors dedicated to the idea of “books as weapons in the war of ideas”.
The Council got to work quickly, deciding to print the books in a standard “pocket” size on pulp magazine presses. On average, the books cost six cents to produce, and were given free to troops overseas and in stateside hospitals. It was the greatest free giveaway of books in history. Patriotic publishers took reduced profits and split the penny per book royalty with the author. It was a worthwhile investment.
“They were extremely popular. I always had two or three in my pack in addition to the volume I was reading. They were a god send,” a World War II veteran of the European Theater of Operations recently told me. By the end of the war, 123 million Armed Services Editions were in circulation, with 1,322 titles represented. They were everywhere, at field hospitals, on troop transports, replacement depots, USO centers, on giant aircraft carriers and invasion landing craft. One G.I., reading Candide
on board a vessel bound for the Normandy beaches, said “These little books are a great thing. They take you away.”
There were classics like Moby Dick, westerns by Max Brand, and mysteries by Agatha Christie and other popular authors.
Six short years after the first paperback was published in the United States, what was thought of as an experiment had become a established fact. Paperbacks were here to stay, and hundreds of thousands of young men whom might never have otherwise read a book to completion were hooked on the reading habit. Long hours of inactivity and travel caused many to turn to the Armed Services Editions, which were so popular that a reader often would tear the binding in half so a pal could start it while he finished.
While the reading tastes of servicemen and women closely mirrored the reading public back home, there were some favorites. Any title that hinted at raciness—The Lively Lady, or The Star Spangled Virgin—were greatly in demand, although bound to disappoint the sex-starved G.I. Perhaps the most popular title was the best-selling A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which was the first ASE title to be published in a second edition. Author Betty Smith received hundreds of letters from servicemen who thanked her for reminding them of what waited for them at home, and showed what they were fighting for.
Some scholars conjecture that the resurgence of interest in the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald in the late 1940s was due in no small part to the ASE print runs of his titles. Veterans returning home and attending college under the G.I. Bill brought with them an awareness of literature they would not have had without the ASE program.
The seed of reading had been planted. The book had been transformed from being thought of as an expensive hardcover that would sit on the shelf, to a mass-produced media that could be carried anywhere, shared with friends, talked about, even ripped in half. The generation that grew up in the Depression and could often not afford hardcovers now reveled in access to reading material. Books had become ubiquitous. It was a massive cultural shift, and publishers and authors continue to reap the benefits today.
The Armed Services Editions are one of the many questions about World War II I never thought to ask my father when he was alive (picture below). But I do recall him often sitting at the kitchen table, a cup of coffee at his elbow, reading a book. Histories and mysteries were his favorites. Now I have to wonder, did Sergeant Harold J. Benn pick up the reading habit in uniform, carrying dog-eared ASE paperbacks in his pack? I’d like to think so.