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    Auction Finds

    Armed Services Edition books from WWII

    I was standing in the middle of a tight space, an attic with built-in bookshelves overcrowded with dusty books along a wall and in a lovely mahogany case with glass fronts. Two other rooms in the same shape as this one were off to the side.

    Overhead in the main room were a series of L-shaped hooks that caught everyone’s eye. What were they and what were they used for? We were previewing an estate in the home of a former history teacher who had a love for history, especially military. A small office on the second floor – not as forgotten as this attic – held books that had deemed better care.

    The overhead hooks had once held a gun collection, according to an auction-house staffer, and they had been removed for sale by another auction company. There were so many hooks on that ceiling that we could only imagine the huge stock of guns that this man owned.

    rmed Services Edition books

    The Joe Louis and John Brown books were among other good ones in the lot.

    I was more interested in the books, though. Perusing the shelves, looking for a first edition that I recognized, I came across a row of mini paperback books on the top shelf, flushed against the wall, their backs exposed. A few were lying on a chair just in front of the bookshelves. Picking one up, I read the title “Joe Louis” and the words “Armed Services Edition.” Nearby was another titled “John Brown’s Body.”

    My interest was suddenly piqued and I started pulling other titles from the bookshelf. I didn’t have time to go through them all, so I decided that I’d bid on them as a lot.

    These paperbacks were published and distributed during World War II to Army and Navy personnel overseas. So, it was fitting that I came across them so close to a day on which the country celebrates its veterans. These books – fiction and nonfiction, poetry and drama – kept them entertained and preoccupied during the downtimes of the war against Hitler in Europe.

    rmed Services Edition books

    Some of the books were by the country’s most popular writers.

    The books were small in stature but they were not condensed. They were the full versions of some of the best books being published at the time, along with some classics. The cover noted explicitly: “This is the Complete Book – Not a Digest.” The books adhered to a certain length, and those that ran longer were abridged, either by the author or freelance editors. Those covers bore the inscription: “Condensed for Wartime Reading.”

    The design of the books was pretty standard: All had bright red, green, yellow or blue covers with a bottom strip of a different color. The covers also carried an image of the original book. The backs were a bright yellow bordered by a red stripe, and offered a synopsis of the book.

    About 123 million copies of 1,322 books were distributed free to the armed forces from 1943 to 1947. They were made to be small enough for a soldier to put into his pocket and handed off to a buddy once he’d finished. They were said to be enthusiastically devoured by the troops.

    rmed Services Edition books

    The titles also included science and psychology.

    Supplying books to servicemen was nothing new. The Victory Book Campaigns conducted by the nation’s libraries had spurred Americans to donate books to soldiers, but the process was cumbersome for the military. This new book project got started after Army officials came up with a more manageable idea, and approached the Council on Books in Wartime about it. The council was a group of publishers, librarians and booksellers whose aim was to use books to disseminate ideas as their part of the war effort.

    So this plan worked for them, so much so that the members decided to spearhead the project and set up a non-profit called Armed Services Edition Inc. The project involved the Army and Navy, along with 70 publishing firms, more than a dozen printing houses and other ancillary services.

    The project, described by a Saturday Evening Post writer in 1945 as “the greatest book-publishing project in history,” would have a major effect on publishing in this country. During the 1940s and 1950s paperbacks helped fuel a boon in the industry.

    rmed Services Edition books

    Some history paperbacks.

    The books were sold to the Army and Navy for the cost of manufacture plus 10 percent. The publishers and authors were paid a royalty of a half cent per copy. The books were offered only overseas so not to compete with books sales in this country.

    They were printed on presses for normal-sized books but in order for them to be pocket-sized, they were printed in pairs, one above the other, and then sliced in half. The books were printed on two different-size presses: the Reader’s Digest size, with the sliced books measuring 5 ½” x 3 7/8″, and on pulp-magazine presses, at 6 ½” x 4 ½”. The text was printed over two columns for easier reading, and the books were bound with glue and a large staple on the short end.

    The books weren’t made to last, merely to be read over and over and discarded. The ones at the auction were in relatively good shape, but the paper in most was brittle, easy to tear along the edges and had turned brown.

    rmed Services Edition books

    Some popular books and names, along with ambiguous titles.

    The first paperback printed was “The Education of Hyman Kaplan” by Leo Rosten, a book of humorous stories that was No. 1 in the “A” or first series of 30 titles. Over the four years, books by some of the country’s major novelists were published as these military paperbacks: Jack London, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Ernie Pyle, Eugene O’Neill, Raymond Chandler, Zane Grey, Carl Sandburg. There were historical novels, classics, self-help/inspirational, short stories, sports, poetry, drama and humor.

    Some were so popular that they were reprinted often: “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith, “White Fang” by Jack London and “The Yearling” by Rawlings. The last book published was “Home Country” by Pyle in 1947.

    The list of books contained the name of at least one African American author, Shirley Graham, and her book “There Once Was a Slave.”  The book tells the story of the life of Frederick Douglass; the hardback was published in 1947 by Graham, who later married W.E.B. DuBois in 1951.  At least three other paperbacks were about people of color: “George Washington Carver” by Rackham Holt, “Joe Louis: American” by Margery Miller and “Black Majesty: The Life of Christophe, King of Haiti” by John W. Vandercook.

    I suppose Richard Wright was be a little too agitating and unsettling for the soldiers. The paperback list included only a few women writers.

    rmed Services Edition books

    Career-oriented paperbacks.

    The titles were chosen by an advisory committee that selected works that would be palatable to the military. There were restrictions: “No books were approved that contained statements or attitudes offensive to our Allies, any religious or racial group, or any trade or profession or that were not in accord ‘with the spirit of American democracy.’ Also excluded were books which ‘may give aid and comfort to the enemy, or which may be detrimental to our own war effort.’”

    No sexual books, either, although soldiers assumed that some titles portended titillating prose inside. “The Star Spangled Virgin” referred to the location of the story, the Virgin Islands, “Is Sex Necessary” was a collection of humorous plays, and “The Lively Lady” was the name of a ship.

    Books that actually had some racy passages were said to be as popular as pin-ups.

    Some books were banned, including one that bore a portrait of President Roosevelt and another for its anti-Mormon message.

    Armed Services Edition books

    Some classics and popular writers.

    Not many of the books made it to soldiers on the front lines, but in some instances they did. Each soldier on the ships that crossed the English Channel before D-Day were supplied with one book, approved by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s staff.

    There are apparently very few complete collections of the books. The University of Virginia Library has a complete set  and mounted an exhibition about the books in 1996. The Library of Congress also has a complete set.

    I bought the group of books at auction, a total of 116 of them (with a few duplicates). Along with Joe Louis and “John Brown’s Body” by Stephen Vincent Benet, some of other titles were “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau, Ring Lardner’s “You know me Al,” Charles Dickens’ “Pickwick Papers,” H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine,” James M. Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” and several by Rawlings, C.S. Forester and Erskine Caldwell.

    These paperbacks are apparently collectible, some obviously more than others. The key is to find them in good condition, since they were made cheaply and were not meant to last.




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    1. I love your post, partially because I envy your luck finding these books, but also because you comment so thoughtfully.

      As far as I can tell, the only African American author of one of these books was Shirley Graham, who wrote one of the last to be published, “There Once Was a Slave,” a bio of Frederick Douglass. She was once married to W E B Dubois.

      All this points to a neat paradox. Part of what inspired the project was to counteract Nazi bookburnings and censorship, and the biographies of black “notables” (other minorities are represented too) were clearly in place to differentiate America from the racist Nazis. But of course looking too closely at our own country wasn’t exactly comfortable either, and unfortunately we didn’t have a whole lot of moral credibility when it came to American policies on race.

      I’m curating a library exhibit that’s in the early planning stages, and you beautifully identified one of the main displays by bringing up the absence of African American authors.

      Sometimes ASEs were stamped by bases, hospitals, ships, etc, and finding those stamps is fun; you get to see a little of where the book was. If all these were collected by a single service member, they might all be stamped the same or all unstamped, but if they were collected from lots of sources, you should find a few stamps.

      I’d be interested in buying the set, if you’re planning to sell, and I can also recommend a good book dealer, James Dourgarian (he’s easy to find online.)

      Brian in NC

      • Thanks so much, Brian, for pointing that out about Shirley Graham. I completely missed it when I was browsing the list. I’m adding it to the blog post. Meanwhile, I realized that I have hard copies of Graham’s “There Once Was a Slave” and Rackham Holt’s “George Washington Carver,” both acquired at auctions. I’d love to find ASE copies of both. As for selling them, I’m not quite ready to do that yet. Sherry

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