Taking Books to the People, Part 4: Armed Services Editions and World War II (part a)

The Army marches on it’s stomach.  The Navy provides 3 hots and a cot.  According to  Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the physiological needs of food and shelter are the most Maslow's hierarchy of needsbasic needs.  Would reading be a safety, love-longing, esteem or self-actualization need?  The level of need may depend upon the reader and his/her circumstances.

Many  Americans had a visceral reaction to the Nazi book burnings beginning in 1933.   By 1938, millions of books had been burned in Germany.  Franklin Roosevelt famously said that “Books can not be killed by fire. People die, but books never die.

Books can not be killed by fire.

According to Wikipedia, ” Armed Services Editions (ASEs) were small, compact, paperback books printed by the Council on Books in Wartime for distribution within the American military during World War II. This program was in effect from 1943 to 1946. The ASEs were designed to provide entertainment to soldiers serving overseas, while also educating them about political, historical, and military issues. The slogan of the Council on Books in Wartime was, “Books are weapons in the war of ideas.”

Historynet shares that before the Armed Service Editions were created, American citizens donated books to the troops.  ALA’s Victory Book Campaign “to benefit the army and merchant marine—were wildly successful. Civilians contributed books of every genre, shape, and size; by January 1942, 25,000 books had been donated in New York City alone.”

But, as Lieutenant Colonel Ray L. Trautman, head of the Army Library Service, found, the efficient delivery of those volumes across the globe was another challenge entirely. … Trautman tried a “book kit” program, shipping crates of reference books, paperbacks, and hardbacks to camps overseas, but the same issues surfaced. Trautman was at a loss. He needed books that were light, uniformly sized, and portable—books that, ideally, would cater to every taste: mysteries, westerns, bestsellers. They didn’t exist; he would have to create them. But how?

Penguin Armed Services editions

According to the Library of Congress Blog from September 30, 2015, Books in Action: The Armed Service Editions by Erin Allen:

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.

Books in ActionDefense Technical Information Center (DTIC) has a PDF of John Cole’s Books in Action, printed as part of the 40th anniversary of the ASE in 1983.   The PDF includes an introduction by John Cole who wrote the original Books in Action, the “Armed Services Editions in Publishing History by Michael Hackenberg, “Recollections of an ASE Collector” by Matthew Bruccoli and other relevant essays.

Have you ever seen an Armed Services Edition?  Have you ever read one of its titles without realizing that it might have been an ASE?  Join in the conversation and share your stories about ASEs or their titles.  Did you know that the military services have libraries and provide book kits to troops in war zones, on ships, Marines at embassies around the world?


2 thoughts on “Taking Books to the People, Part 4: Armed Services Editions and World War II (part a)”

  1. This is a fascinating series of posts. I have been aware of the WWII Armed Services Editions for a long time — my Dad may have had a couple when I was young — but I never knew much about them. The business of maintaining troop morale and connections to home is a vital function of the military. The USO, military bands, the Stars and Stripes, and books like these remind soldiers that they are not forgotten and that a “real world” awaits their safe return home. Books offer the added appeal of being mentally stimulating, expanding cultural perspectives, and introducing new concepts.
    As an aside, you may remember a M*A*S*H episode in which the staff at the mobile hospital eagerly shared a paperback mystery, passing it around from hand to hand and speculating about what was in the chapter that had been torn out of the end. It was a great diversion. Good plot too.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I”m very sorry I missed that MASH episode. I have the entire MASH collection so maybe I’ll look through the CDs for that episode. Glad yo have liked the series. I have really enjoyed writing it–the subject is very close to my heart since one of my previous library jobs was the Paperback Book Librarian for the Army where I selected paperback books for the book kits that were sent to deployed troops, troops sent out to the field, Navy ships, guys in the brigs and disciplinary barracks, as well as the Marines stationed at the Embassies around the world. Thanks for taking the time to make such thoughtful comments to these blogs.


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