Molly Guptill Manning on 'When Books Went to War'

'When Books Went to War'
'When Books Went to War' by Molly Guptill Manning
Book cover courtesy of publisher

In 1944, American soldiers crowded the shores of Great Britain, waiting to load onto ships and cross the English Channel for Normandy. As D-Day loomed over the heads of his troops, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower made sure they had something to comfort them, to pass the time, to remind them of home: He made sure they had books.

Hundreds of thousands of books were delivered to the American troops, and they were snatched up faster than their special rations of cigarettes and candy bars. The slim paperbacks weren't the kind you could find on a bookshelf — they were Armed Services Editions, specifically designed to fit in soldiers' pockets.

Armed Services Editions, or ASEs, are just one element of the literary side of the American war effort. In "When Books Went to War," Molly Guptill Manning explores the role books played in World War II.

Books at war

"Books are weapons in the war of ideas."

That was the slogan of the Council on Books in Wartime, an American non-profit founded in 1942 to promote literature as a tool for winning the war. But if books could be weapons, they could also be casualties.

It is estimated that, by May 1945, the German army and its allies systematically destroyed over 100 million books. Entire libraries were burned, particularly those containing works by Jewish authors. As books went up in flames across Europe, American publishing houses began to print more than ever.

An army of librarians

Victory Book Campaign poster
A poster from the Victory Book Campaign
Photo via

Books for soldiers were always in the budget during World War II, but the War Department's original goal of one book for every enlisted man was far from a reality in 1940. Enter Raymond L. Trautman, chief of the Library Section of the U.S. Army.

When Trautman told fellow librarians about the bare bookshelves at some Army training camps, they responded with book drives all over the country. The local drives built into a national effort: the Victory Book Campaign. The campaign collected 423,655 books in just two weeks, and nearly 9 million in four months. Army camps with once-empty shelves were now well-stocked with books of all kinds.

Armed Services Edition paperback
An Armed Services Edition of Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" and "Country Lawyer" by Bellamy Partridge
Book cover courtesy of publisher

Yet the standard books of the day — hardcovers and larger paperbacks — weren't suited for overseas travel. As American troops shipped out, they needed a new kind of book.

Ingenuity at work

The average paperback at the time, Manning writes, was hefty: 5 inches by 8 inches, and typically 2 inches thick. In 1943, The Council on Books in Wartime partnered with prominent publishers to produce a new kind of book, so small and thin no regular book press at the time could print it.

This was the birth of the Armed Services Editions, books specifically sized to fit in troops' pockets. The Council selected more than 1,300 titles to keep men overseas entertained and printed more than 123 million copies of these special editions.

Favorite wartime reads

The ASEs were an instant hit and became a cherished commodity for soldiers. The range of titles had a little bit of everything, from mysteries and westerns to comics and science books, but contemporary fiction proved to be the most popular.

"A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," Betty Smith's 1943 coming-of-age novel about growing up poor in New York City was one of the most sought-after titles. Many soldiers wrote to Smith about how much they enjoyed it; Smith did her best to write back.

"The Great Gatsby" also found a wide audience among soldiers. Before it was chosen as an ASE, F. Scott Fitzgerald's book was nearly out of print. The wartime printing played a huge role in saving the modern classic from obscurity.

The special editions were passed around from soldier to soldier, even as the thin volumes began to fall apart. One soldier, Manning notes, declared that "to heave one in the garbage can is tantamount to striking your grandmother."

A lasting legacy

Most of the thin volumes printed for troops have been lost to time, but their impact on American reading habits has been far-reaching. The Armed Services Editions ignited a love for reading in many men who hadn't touched a book since their schooldays. Troops who had never before read for pleasure returned home hungry for more.

Not only did the volumes turn enlisted men into avid readers, but they ignited a reading craze nationwide. The revolutionary printing techniques needed to create the slim volumes ushered in the age of the mass-market paperback; American book sales soared throughout the 1940s.

What began as one librarian's quest to put a book in the hand of each enlisted man in fact put more books into the hands of more Americans than ever before.

On The Daily Circuit: "When Books Went to War"

Molly Guptill Manning, author of "When Books Went to War," joined the Daily Circuit on Jan. 20 along with Dr. Elizabeth Samet, professor of English at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Manning and Samet discussed the important role of books in the life of troops, both during World War II and today. Books can provide a taste of home, like Betty Smith's "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" and Rosemary Taylor's "Chicken Every Sunday" did for troops in the 1940s. They can also provide a much-needed escape or an important glimpse into other cultures.

When graduating students at West Point ask Samet for book recommendations, she frequently suggests "The Sword of Honour" trilogy by Evelyn Waugh and the personal memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant.

Veterans from both the Vietnam War and the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq called with their stories of reading overseas. Listen to one soldier's reaction to some very unexpected reading material:

Join the conversation. Veterans: What books did you read while serving? And to everyone, what books do you think would serve troops well?

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