One of the many special and unique items at Central Library is a collection of ASE books. Armed Services Editions, popularly known as ASEs, are pocket-sized books made for and distributed to American servicemen around the world during World War II.
Called “the greatest book-publishing project in history” by the Saturday Evening Post, the Armed Services Editions program was the result of collaboration between the U.S. Army and the Council on Books in Wartime (a trade group of publishers, booksellers, and librarians). Between 1943 and 1947, over 122 million copies of 1,324 titles were printed. The intent behind the project was twofold: to provide much-needed entertainment and diversion to soldiers and to symbolize the freedoms the soldiers were fighting to preserve.
After the Nazi book burnings, Americans had responded enthusiastically to the Victory Book Campaign organized by the American Library Association (headed initially by Althea Warren of the Los Angeles Public Library), but the contributions were difficult to sort through and some titles, such as How to Knit, were deemed unsuitable. The variety of sizes and weights made the books unwieldy to package and ship, and hard for soldiers to carry. The need for lightweight, uniformly sized, and portable books was clear. H. Stahley Thompson, a graphic artist in the army’s Special Services Division, came up with the idea of using idle magazine presses, thin paper, and the process of printing two titles at a time on one page. A horizontal cut would then separate the pages into two small books. The cost to produce each book was a mere six cents.
Obtaining permission to print the books required the cooperation of the publishing industry. The Council on Books in Wartime appealed not only to the patriotism of publishers, but also to their commercial instincts. Council Chairman William Warder Norton, founder of W.W. Norton Co., wrote, “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 the industry.”
The titles included in the program were an assortment of fiction and non-fiction, classics and contemporary bestsellers, biographies and poetry, and a range of genre titles (mystery, sports, fantasy, westerns). All but 79 of the 1,324 titles were unabridged, bearing the description, “Armed Services Edition: This is the Complete Book-Not a Digest” on the specially designed covers.
Even though the royalty for ASE editions was only one cent a volume, split between author and publisher, writers were glad to participate in the effort. It was an honor to have a book chosen for ASE publication. Betty Smith, author of one of the most popular titles in the project, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, received on average four letters a day from soldiers thanking her for making them think of home, even if home was not Brooklyn. Willa Cather’s novels reached men who were not her typical readers, such as the soldier who selected Death Comes for the Archbishop, thinking it was a murder mystery. To his surprise, he enjoyed it even after he discovered the novel was about two French Jesuit missionaries’ efforts in the American Southwest to revive the Catholic faith and evangelize the Mexicans and Indians. In 1945, one title was selected after it had recently gone out of print, having sold just 120 copies the year before. The 155,000 copies sent overseas brought new and increased exposure to The Great Gatsby, lifting it out of obscurity.
The little books were a huge success; “as popular as pin-up girls” according to a GI in New Guinea. The demand was so great that books were ripped in half, allowing one soldier to start the book and another to finish it at the same time. Each copy was expected to last for six readings, but they lasted much longer, tattered and moldy copies being shared until nothing remained. A Corporal at sea wrote, "The books are read until they're so dirty you can't see the print. To heave one in the garbage can is tantamount to striking your grandmother."
As predicted by W.W. Norton, the Armed Services Editions had a lasting, positive impact on the book industry. Publishing, particularly the paperback trade, experienced a boom in the decade following the war, capitalizing on the demand created by a generation of men who had discovered the joy of having a book on hand to read.
The books were not intended for sale and were “purposely made not to last,” both to save money and to ease the fear of publishers that a large number of free books would flood the market after the war’s conclusion. While 122,951,031 books were distributed, only a fraction survived the war. The Library of Congress owns a complete set, and a nearly complete set (lacking 16 titles) is owned by the University of Alabama. Notre Dame’s collection contains 1,034 titles.
The History Department is fortunate to have the Tom Treanor collection of ASE’s. The over 800 books in the collection are reference materials, not available for checkout, but patrons may view them in the department upon request.
For further information on these amazing little books:
When books went to war: the stories that helped us win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning
A history of the Council of Books in Wartime: 1942-1946 by the Council of Books in Wartime
The following are reference titles only, available for reading at Central Library:
Books in action: the armed services editions Edited by John Y. Cole