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The Council on Books in Wartime established a nonprofit, Armed Services Editions, Inc., in spring 1942 as “the most valuable thing that bookmen can undertake in the conduct of the war.” W.W. Norton’s phrase, “Books are weapons in the war of ideas,” was popular with President Roosevelt and served as a contrast to book burning taking place in Germany.
The Council established cooperation between the Army and the Navy, the War Production Board, more than 70 publishing firms, and numerous printing houses, composition firms, and paper suppliers. While there was paper rationing during the war, the government ensured the supply of hundreds of tons of paper for the ASEs. There was a provision that ASEs could only be distributed overseas as authors, publishers, and some of the printing firms substantially reduced their usual profits. Publishers did, however, benefit in the long term with a higher rate of literacy and an eagerness for books by returning service members.
The books were carefully designed for portability and readability and were economical in the use of paper. The trouser and breast pockets of various uniforms were carefully measured, and the books were printed in double columns of legible short lines. As the books might be going directly into the hands of personnel rather than remaining in camp libraries, they were often read in difficult conditions. Their unusual shape is the result of them being bound on the short side so they could be printed economically. The paper was two grades higher than newsprint, and it was estimated that a book would last through six readings. They often survived ten or more readings with numerous treasured copies found in Europe or the United States after the war.
A small committee selected the books with recreational reading as the first goal. It was hoped that a mixture of fiction and nonfiction titles would cater to all levels of taste. Contemporary fiction was most popular; service members could share their enjoyment with families back home who were reading the same books. Popular categories included historical novels, mysteries, books of humor, and westerns. Each shipment might contain a selection of adventure stories, biographies, cartoons, classics, current events, fantasy, histories, music, nature, poetry, science, sea and naval stories, self-help and inspirational books, travel books, and short story collections. Because of the small size of the printed books, many people believed they were all abridged, but only about 70 books had to be abridged. Later in the war, educational and technical books were added with the thought of preparing service members for jobs when they returned home.
The books were intended to boost morale and provide distraction from high periods of stress as well as from boredom. Popular book discussion groups were formed in camps, and books were often read out loud to prevent fights over the distribution. Service members wrote to the Council and directly to authors to express what the books meant to them. The books provided catharsis and solace, a way to express emotions they could not show. They provided laughter when nothing in their current situations was funny, and helped them overcome fear. Many of the letter writers were grateful for the ordinary glimpses of home. Some wrote deeply personal letters to the authors expressing their thoughts and asking for advice. Female authors received numerous proposals of marriage and many authors were asked for suggestions on writing techniques. Many service members wrote joyful letters about reading books for the first time in their lives. Others returned to the U.S and were able to attend college on the GI bill with plans to become writers.
Books in the collection can be found by searching the Library of Congress Online Catalog for "Armed Services Editions Collection (Library of Congress)" as a phrase.
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (Armed Services Edition no. 8)
The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene (ASE no. 22)
Cimarron by Edna Ferber (ASE no. 140)
Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain (ASE no. 174)
My Antonia by Willa Cather (ASE no. 185)
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (ASE no. 209)
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (ASE no. 296)
Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis (ASE no. 326)
Dracula by Bram Stoker (ASE no. 359)
Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham (ASE no. 364)
Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs (ASE no. 382)
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (ASE no. 395)
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain (ASE no. 496)
The Time Machine by H. G. Wells (ASE no. 616)
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (ASE no. 650)
White Fang by Jack London (ASE no. 672)
The Years by Virginia Woolf (ASE no. 772)
All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren (ASE no. 1201)
Come In and Other Poems by Robert Frost (Armed Services Edition no. 33)
Great Poems, from Chaucer to Whitman (ASE no. 340)
Selected Poems by A. E. Housman (ASE no. 367)
Selected Poems by Carl Sandburg (ASE no. 404)
Selected Poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley (ASE no. 431)
Selected Poems of John Keats (ASE no. 536)
The Charge of the Light Brigade and Other Poems by Alfred Lord Tennyson (ASE no. 658)
Paul Revere's Ride and Other Poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (ASE no. 704)
My Heart Leaps Up and Other Poems by William Wordsworth (ASE no. 736)
Collected Poems of Rupert Brooke (ASE no. 776)
The Daniel Jazz and Other Poems by Vachel Lindsay (ASE no. 901)
Love Poems by Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (ASE no. 939)
A. Woollcott: His Life and His World by Samuel Hopkins Adams (Armed Services Edition no. 931)
Meet Your Ancestors by Roy Chapman Andrews (ASE no. 1160)
The Republic by Charles A. Beard (ASE no. P-29)
The Loom of Language by Frederick Bodmer (ASE no. 893)
Walt Whitman by Henry Seidel Canby (ASE no. K-22)
Frontier on the Potomac by Jonathan Daniels (ASE no. 1221)
Radio's 100 Men of Science by Orrin E. Dunlap Jr. (ASE no. 1112)
The Japanese Nation by John Embree (ASE no. 1040)
Men of Popular Music by David Ewen (ASE no. T-4)
Inside the F.B.I. by John J. Floherty (ASE no. 1068)
Jazz by Robert Goffin (ASE no. 920)
George Washington Carver by Rackham Holt (ASE no. A-25)
Men of Science in America by Bernard Jaffe (ASE no. 809)
U.S. Foreign Policy by Walter Lippmann (ASE no. C-73)
Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey (ASE no. L-20)
Liberal Education by Mark Van Doren (ASE no. 1024)
Webster's New Handy Dictionary (ASE no. 717)