James M. Dourgarian
It is the middle of World War II. Soldiers are on their way to the front lines of both the Pacific and European Theaters. Other soldiers are already there. Still others have been there and are now receiving medical treatment at military hospitals. There is a break in whatever action faces them. What are all of them doing? Reading! With no jukeboxes to fill with coins, no jive on radios they could tune in, little liquor to drink, and few willing women, books were a soldier's solution to boredom. Yes, even among the bombs and bullets there was boredom in World War II. One escape, one refuge of sanity, was to read. If it wasn't a good letter from home, it was a book, but how would a soldier obtain a book, and from whom? Starting in 1942 many books had dust jackets asking readers to donate books to the Army after reading. The Book of the Month Club donated 1,500 subscriptions to 130 libraries overseas, but no measure was enough to supply eager soldiers with enough books at the right cost. Donated books were also not designed with a soldier's special needs in mind. Thus was born a series of paper-bound books that was extremely important for its influence on a great generation. The series was the Armed Services Editions, a project that was the largest book give-away enterprise in world history. It began in 1943 and ended in 1947. Its achievement staggers the mind. During that small time frame, more than 1,300 titles were produced. A total of nearly 123 million volumes was distributed to soldiers, all thanks to a cooperative enterprise which involved several Army and Navy agencies, the War Production Board, 70 publishing firms, and more than a dozen printing houses, composition firms, and paper suppliers. The agency which guided and coordinated this massive project was the Council on Books in Wartime.
The Council was formed in 1942 by a group of publishers, booksellers, authors, and librarians who wanted to do their part in the "war effort" by mobilizing all sections of the book industry. The idea was to emphasize the importance in a wartime society of books as disseminators of information and ideas, and as morale builders. Its slogan was "Books Are Weapons in the War of Ideas," a phrase suggested by W. W. Norton. Although the Council began as "a committee in search of a project," it soon found its path. Its objective was simple: to mass-produce and mass-supply paper-bound books at a low cost to the Army and Navy. The types of titles were as varied as the personalities who read them. There were Hemingway short stories. There was poetry from Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman and A. E. Housman. There was an array of Westerns as well as mysteries. There was humor from James Thurber and Thorne Smith. There were current bestsellers, classics, and serious nonfiction. In short, there was an appeal nearly to everyone who wanted to read. And they were read and read and read, even by those not previously disposed to reading. Very often soldiers would read the books aloud to their comrades. For the bulk of soldiers overseas, Armed Services Editions (ASE) books were the only books that were widely and easily accessible.
Directors of the Council included such publishing luminaries as W. W. Norton, John Farrar of Farrar & Rinehart, S. Spencer Scott of Harcourt, Brace, and Bennett Cerf of Random House. Norton was chairman of the Council's executive committee. He described the importance of the ASE series this way: "The very fact that millions of men will have an opportunity to learn what a book is and what it can mean is likely now and in post-war years to exert a tremendous influence on the post-war course of industry."
Portability was the first priority in production. The books had to be small enough to fit a soldier's uniform pocket, but the equipment used to manufacture most books wasn't designed for pocket-sized publications. Thus, it was decided to print the books two-up, meaning one book printed above another to be separated later into two volumes by a horizontal cut. Presses ordinarily used for "The Reader's Digest" and other digest-sized publications were used for the small-format books, while pulp- magazine presses were used for the larger format. Once all the difficulties in planning the operation were solved, the responsibilities of actual operation were thrust upon Philip Van Doren Stern. A former executive editor at Pocket Books (a key publisher in the emergence of mass market paperbacks), Stern was appointed manager of the Armed Services Editions by the Council. He was familiar with both production and editorial aspects of the paperback book business. Bureaucracy was the first obstacle he had to overcome. He had to deal with five different Army and Navy offices, a paper firm and its mills, five printers, more than a dozen typesetting houses, the membership of the Council, both individually as publishers and collectively through the Council's management committee, and an advisory committee on book selection. The result was that these little books turned out to be exactly what they were designed to be -- cheaply-produced books using wartime materials, designed for mass distribution and mass reading. In fact, it was assumed that they would be read until they fell apart. This planned obsolescence was also a key factor because publishers didn't want cheap books dumped on the market after the war. The Council also decided to eliminate textbooks, books with half-tone illustrations, educational books, and technical/scientific books from the equation. The first contract between the Army and the Council was signed in July 1943. It called for 1.5 million books -- 50,000 copies of each of the first 30 titles. The advisory committee that selected titles for publication did so from current and forthcoming publications submitted in book or proof form, although suggestions also came from the Army and Navy library offices, members of Congress, and even individual soldiers and sailors. As classified by the Council, the series included 33 adventure titles (such as Jack London's The Call of the Wild), eight aviation titles (such as Beryl Markham's West With the Night), 86 biographies, 23 classics (such as The Iliad), six cartoon books, 246 books of contemporary fiction (John Steinbeck, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings), 45 on countries and travel, 20 on current affairs and the war (such as books by Ernie Pyle), seven drama titles (Eugene O'Neill, George Bernard Shaw), 26 fantasies, 113 historical novels, 20 histories (such as Carl Sandberg's Storm Over the Land), 130 humor titles, 11 on music and the arts, 122 mysteries (Raymond Chandler, Ellery Queen), 16 on nature, 28 volumes of poetry, 32 on science, 28 sea stories, 16 self-help/inspirational titles, 92 short story collections, 30 on sports, 160 Westerns (Zane Grey, Ernest Haycox, Max Brand), and 24 miscellaneous titles.
The idea behind the Armed Services Editions began with Lt. Col. Ray Trautman, a young Army officer who headed the Army Library Section, assisted by H. Stahley Thompson, an Army graphic arts specialist. While the idea behind the series was good and while Thompson's idea of using rotary presses of digest and pulp magazines was brilliant, it wouldn't have gone anywhere without the cooperation of American publishers. So, in January 1943 Trautman and Thompson took their idea to Malcolm Johnson, a member of the executive committee of the Council on Books in Wartime. Johnson not only endorsed the project, but also recommended to the executive committee that the Council actually operate it, assuming full responsibility for the manufacture of books and selling them at cost to the Army and Navy. The plan was then drawn up and presented to the full Council by W. Warder Norton, president of W. W. Norton & Co. and chairman of the Council's executive committee. He is credited with cementing the plan. Norton was convinced that "this is the most valuable thing that bookmen can undertake in the conduct of the war." The plan was that an advisory committee would select the titles. Royalties would be 1 cent per book, split evenly between original publisher and the author. The books would predominantly be current publications, being popular novels, books about the war, humor, occasional classics, and specially prepared anthologies. In May 1943 the plan was adopted by the Council as one of its many projects. Thus, the Armed Services Editions, Inc., a nonprofit organization, was established. The plan was to have the Council sell books to the Army and Navy at cost of manufacture, plus 10 per cent for overhead. An unpaid advisory committee made of prominent members of the public and literary world selected the titles to be printed. Original board members were John Farrar, William Sloane, Jeanne Flexner, Nicholas Wreden, Mark Van Doren, Amy Loveman, and Harry Hansen. It met twice a week. Titles chosen also had to be approved by both the Army and the Navy. Trautman represented the Army, and Isabel DuBois, chief Navy librarian, represented the Navy. The Soldiers Voting Act prevented the Army from purchasing books that included even a passing expression of opinion on national politics or on U. S. political history. This was so widely interpreted that it derailed publishing several titles as ASE selections and delayed others until the law was liberalized, so additional readers were hired to ensure that book content wouldn't have a political bent. Thus, Mrs. Stephen Vincent Benet and Louis Untermeyer joined those screening the potential titles. And some books were rejected. Stern's reading staff checked every word of possible selections to note references to politics, racial minorities, or anything that might provoke controversy or scandal. Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage was rejected, for example, because of its attack on Mormonism.
A "set" of ASEs consisted of 30 titles at the beginning of the series. That number was later increased to 32 titles issued monthly starting with the "J" series in 1944 and ultimately to 40 titles monthly starting with the "Q" sequence in 1945. One set was issued per month for every 150 men, one set per month for every 50 hospital beds, and one set per month for every isolated unit, no matter what size. At the beginning, 50,000 copies of each title were printed with 40,000 going to the Army and 10,000 to the Navy. Eventually that schedule was stepped up to 155,000 copies with 130,000 destined for the Army and 25,000 for the Navy. The first book in the series, numbered as A-1, was The Education of Hyman Kaplan by L. Q. Ross, a pseudonym of Leo Rosten. The first set of 30 books was the "A" set. The books were numbered sequentially (A-1, A-2, A-3, etc. through A-30). The first of the "B" set was B-31. Letter-numbered copies continued through the letter "T" which was then followed by the first of the numbered copies, No. 655, Portrait of Jennie by Robert Nathan. The series ended in the fall of 1947 with No. 1322, Home Country by Ernie Pyle. The most published author was Frederick Faust. Writing under his "Western" pseudonym of Max Brand, Faust had 16 titles printed, two of which were so popular that they were reprinted within the series, for a total of 18 books, plus another two titles writing under the name Evan Evans. The manner of the front and rear covers was always the same. The rear cover carried a generally glowing review of the book with some copy about the story and the author. The front cover always featured the cover of the original book, although in the case of "made" books, an imaginary book is shown, usually exaggerating the author's name and minimizing nontypographical ornamentation. The books were bound on the short end making a book that was wider than tall (except for the later upright format used after the war). The books were bound with glue and staples. They were printed with dual columns of text to reduce eye strain. Because there was a 512-page limit, about 90 books in the series had to be condensed. Thus, Wallace Stegner cut his The Big Rock Candy Mountain by 15 per cent and then turned further condensation over to Stern and Untermeyer. About 100 titles were so popular that they were reprinted. Thus, The Grapes of Wrath was first published as No. C-90 in 1944, and then again as No. 690 in 1945.
For years these books were over-looked as collectibles. That is another reason why so few have survived. They were ignored. And while collecting vintage paperbacks is a growing segment of our book collecting society today, we all have heard of someone denigrate a book as "just a paperback." Although some of us have always found that statement to be a bit curious, there are many who still give little or no respect to paperback books. Why? After all, Vladimir Nabokov's classic Lolita was originally published as a two-volume paperback (Paris, Olympia Press, 1955). The first book by William S. Burroughs, Junkie, was also a paperback original (NY, Ace Books, No. D-15, 1953). The list extends to books within the ASE series as well. There were more than 60 paperback originals in this wartime series. They are sometimes referred to as "made" books because they were compiled especially for the series. The list of authors with true first editions (paperback originals) in the ASE series includes Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker, Katharine Anne Porter, Sherwood Anderson, Abraham Lincoln, Eugene O'Neill, Mark Twain, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Check your author bibliographies, and your own collections, before you brag about having a complete collection of Hemingway. Do you have Selected Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, published as No. K-9 in the series in 1944? It is cited in the Hanneman bibliography of Hemingway as item No. 20A. William Faulkner's A Rose for Emily And Other Stories was published as No. 825 in the series in 1945. This compilation is cited in the Petersen bibliography of Faulkner as A22. It is an extremely elusive Faulkner "A" item. Also difficult to find and also a major author "A" item is The Diamond as Big As The Ritz And Other Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, No. 1046 in the series published in 1946. And, unknown to many collectors, there are two states of A Rose For Emily And Other Stories. Most copies have a single slug line on the verso of the title page that reads "Manufactured in the United States of America," but the first issue has an aerial view of a room on that page instead. That aerial view actually belongs to No. 827 in the series, The Indigo Necklace by Frances Crane. A printer's misimposition created this error, which was corrected by stop-press, but a few of these anomalies escaped. Better go check your collections.
These books were vital to morale. As one might imagine for soldiers deprived of female companionship, titles even suggesting a ribald factor were extremely popular. Thus, such titles as Star Spangled Virgin, Lust for Life, Is Sex Necessary?, and The Lively Lady were very popular. And although the results might have been less than desired, even the search for ribald passages tended to cause a taste for reading books in soldiers not previously interested in books.
Although most of these books didn't reach front lines, some did. The task forces that went into the Marshall Islands, the Marianas, and Okinawa were distributed books as they left Hawaii. The most notable mass distribution went to invasion forces before D-Day as they marshaled in southern England before crossing the English Channel. One book was given to each soldier before he left on ship. Gen. Eisenhower's staff had approved the distribution. When the "C" and "D" series books were received in early 1944, they were held in stock for this purpose. The men in charge of the distribution reported that the books were welcomed enthusiastically. Before crossing the channel, soldiers invariably discarded all non-essentials. Some abandoned spare shoes or an extra blanket or even souvenirs, but not a single book was left behind, according to news reports. Several reporters wrote of soldiers becoming engrossed in these books while crossing the English Channel on D-Day and heading for what was a murderous reception. These books are today referred to as D-Day books. Titles included The Grapes of Wrath, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Short Stories of Stephen Vincent Benet, Death Comes for the Archbishop, Cross Creek, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. One soldier whose mission was to demolish enemy pillboxes spoke of these books. "These little books are a great thing," said the private from Brooklyn. "They take you away. I remember when my battalion was cut off on top of a hill at El Guettar, I read a whole book in one day. It was called Knight Without Armor. This one I am reading now is called Candide. It is kind of unusual, but I like it."
The Council often heard from soldiers about these books. A truck driver stationed in New Guinea wrote, "The days when no mail is received are not so lonesome when there is an unfinished story around. Then, too, reading takes the mind away from experiences we have that are so different from the environment we left and keeps you from concentrating on all the discomforts we have, always looking for things to annoy you, and becoming a slave to self-pity.
"You have many readers. I have traded many books with truck drivers. They are worth their weight in gold on these long waits we have at the docks, many times arriving there before the boat is even docked. You will find them in the pockets of the boys who operate the bulldozers. On the Army's new weapon, the landing boats, I have seen a small box with three or four (books) in it fastened to the wall of their engine compartment so they will be dry and easy to find. There are many others who, like myself, find that having so many books available helps us to fill the time when there are no shows and no letters to answer." Some sets of ASEs were dropped via parachute to isolated parts of the South Pacific, India, China, New Guinea, Africa. They were even brought to front lines where battle-hardened men living in grimy conditions would crawl on their bellies to get their books. In a 1945 "Saturday Evening Post" article about ASEs, David G. Wittels wrote, "The hunger for these books, evidenced by the way they are read to tatters, is astounding even to the Army and Navy officers and the book trade officials who conceived Editions for the Armed Services....they are reading far more books than such a cross-section of American men ever read before. Some are reading books for the first time since childhood." Frank Luther Mott wrote in his Golden Multitudes (the story of best sellers in the U. S.), "The Armed Services Editions have made book readers of hundreds of thousands of young men who otherwise would have tasted the pleasure of books seldom and gingerly."
These odd-shaped, distinctive books were sought after and read to the same degree as more well-known publications such as "Yank" and "Stars and Stripes." And they were important for other reasons as well. Author Kay Boyle inscribed a copy of her Avalanche (ASE No. I-241) this way: "I knew that an Armed Services edition of this novel had been brought out, but I did not know what purpose it served until many years after the War. On several occasions at dinner parties, or cocktail parties, in the 1950s or 1960s, I would meet a former bomber pilot, and each of them introduced himself to me and told me that the reading of Avalanche was required before they went into action. This was because they would then have some understanding of the political situation in Occupied France if they were shot down or forced to bail out."
Stern resigned his position in December 1945. He was succeeded by Stahley Thompson who had returned from military service with "Yank" overseas. Originally, the Council planned to halt the series within a year after hostilities ended, but occupational troops were still deployed overseas and were still in need of reading matter. Buying "regular" paperbacks was considered, but that idea was rejected as too costly. After all, the 120 million books produced during the war cost only 6 cents per copy. Instead, it was decided to use a more standard upright format similar to Pocket Books, lowering labor and materials costs by using flexible rubber plates rather than metal stereotypes. Print runs were lowered to 25,000 copies per title. Thus, the Council decided to let Editions for the Armed Services, Inc. continue operations for a year longer. Royalties also increased to 6 cents per book to deal with publishers on the same commercial basis as any low-priced book club. Therefore the cost per book also increased to almost 11 cents per copy. Twelve books would be published each month, a total of another 3 million books. The first of these scarce upright books was No. 1179, Last Chapter, by Ernie Pyle.
One of the best books written about the ASE series is Books In Action, edited by John Y. Cole, executive director of the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress. Published in 1984, it lists all the titles in the series and prints several pieces about the series by such notables as Prof. Matthew J. Bruccoli and historian/bookseller Michael Hackenberg. Hackenberg, who has nearly 1,000 of the 1,324 volumes published, writes, "The ASE series set the final imprimatur on cheap, mass-market reading material. Brilliant book design, unusual cooperation among the participants, satisfactory distribution, and a carefully targeted and receptive audience were factors that combined to make the ASE project a success."
Prof. Bruccoli saw his first ASE book about 1954. It started him on a quest to amass a complete collection. He is now about 40 books short of that goal. Bruccoli says that the importance of this series is still not properly understood. He notes that the reputations of several writers were renewed or revived by virtue of the series. "In remembering this series, one must take the time into context. This was World War II, the decade of the '40s, fought by men who were products of the Depression. Many of these men could read, but they couldn't afford to buy a book. Even when the advent of popular 25-cent pocket books came on the scene, that 25 cents was a lot of money. One couldn't buy four books for a dollar, so one had to agonize over which book could be purchased. Then World War II came along, and books were distributed free of charge to millions." He calls the series the biggest culture/book giveaway in history. "The importance of giving away books to young men who had never had the opportunity to read before in their lives, together with the GI Bill, was a turning point in American literacy." He cites poet and novelist James Dickey as one who remembered every ASE title he had read between missions in the Pacific Theater. Bruccoli says they helped Dickey direct himself into the literary world.
Bruccoli also has some thoughts on one of the oddest aspects of the ASE series, the dictionaries. No. 717 in the series is Webster's New Handy Dictionary. It was reprinted, as were several other ASE books, but in this case the reprint was immediate. Thus, No. 718 in the series reprints its immediate predecessor. Not only that, these books were reprinted again several months later, although, unlike other ASE reprints, they maintained their numbering. How can you tell the first Nos. 717 and 718 from their reprints, also Nos. 717 and 718? The reprints have a different, later listing of ASE titles on the inside of the rear wrapper. In any event, all the dictionaries are scarce. Bruccoli believes the dictionaries were printed one after the other because they were so popular. This was an era of men of deprived backgrounds, the pre-GI Bill world. And, he says, these books were read to pieces by men who couldn't afford a dictionary, the most basic and useful of literary tools, so they had to be reprinted, again and again.
Book collector Bill Wegerer owns about 800 ASEs as an outgrowth of his interest in all forms of Pocket Books. He says the dictionaries were reprinted because they were so popular, noting that even for Pocket Books that dictionaries sold more than fiction titles because the dictionaries were books that could be used over and over again. He believes the Army knew this and rather than increase the print-run for just one book, it decided simply to print Nos. 717 and 718 one after the other, doing the same nine months later. He also believes that the Army thought the dictionaries necessary for soldiers to help them write letters home. Wally Green is another avid ASE collector, owning all but about 50 titles in the series. He even has some copies of the books that were never cut after being printed two-up. Asked about the dictionaries, he also believes that the ASE project "knew the dictionary was more likely to be kept and used for reference than passed along like other volumes." He has been collecting vintage paperbacks for about 20 years. He became serious about ASEs about 10 years ago after first collecting the science fiction/fantasy/horror titles that have always been popular in the series. "At that time, they were the 'Ugly Ducklings' of the collectible paperback market and could be obtained in quantity fairly cheaply. I remember finding them in nice shape in antique stores and bookstores at 25-50 cents per copy. I think 'e-bay' is tending to help drive prices up." As for scarcity, "the vertical format seems to be the most difficult to find, probably due to their low print runs....and then certain popular authors (London, Steinbeck, Hemingway) and genres (generally sports) seem the most difficult to find. I have found them in bookstores as far away as England."
Another collector of ASEs is the Military History Institute (MHI) an Army facility that is part of the Army War College. Located at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, the MHI is the Army's designated central repository for historical materials. Martin A. Andresen volunteers for the MHI often conducting surveys of World War II veterans and giving tours of the MHI for veteran reunion groups. "I always get comments from vets about how much they enjoyed certain titles." He adds, "Not surprisingly, titles shipped to the European Theater tended to 'survive' better than did titles shipped to the Pacific Theater where hot/wet weather did its thing." Some of the titles mentioned to him by vets on MHI tours include The Sad Sack (No. 719, 1945), The Best of Yank (No. 934, 1946), any Western (especially Max Brand and Zane Grey), any by Ernie Pyle who was closely identified with the enlisted personnel, The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells (No. 745, 1945, and No. 1091, 1946) because they had heard the radio program, sports books (specific titles driven by the vet's favorite baseball player or team), and Dracula by Bram Stoker (No. L-25, 1944, and No. 851, 1945).
In terms of collectibility, there are a number of issues. Condition, as always, is paramount, but in the case of ASEs, one must accept that even when these books were new and hot off the presses, they were made with wartime materials and in a cheap manner. Heavy use by soldiers, elements of weather, widely-scattered distribution, and the passage of time have reduced the survival rate, even of those ASEs with the largest print-runs. Finding clean, flat, uncreased, square copies with undarkened pages is extremely difficult. These command a premium, especially if the book is a particularly desirable title.
Certainly those with short print-runs at the beginning of the series are even more difficult to find, and this is more so for those at the end of the series because of even smaller print-runs. And while most ASEs are distinctive because of the odd-shape, those with the upright format are difficult to spot in a used book store because they look like any other paperback. So, the supply today is limited, and now there is a growing demand. Many have been desirable for some time. Those titles within the science fiction/fantasy/horror genre have always been popular with collectors. Certainly the first book in the series, and the last, are collectible. Any of the "A" and "B" series would be collectible because of the short print-runs. Any of the D-Day books, the "C" and "D" series, would be welcomed to any collection. Any of the upright format titles issued at the end of the ASE run are extremely difficult to find, and thus collectible.
This article appeared in the November 2001 issue of Firsts Magazine and is used with permission.