Between 1943 and 1947, the Council on Books in Wartime shipped nearly 123 million books to American soldiers. Not just any books, the specially designed Armed Services Editions were lightweight paperbacks designed to easily fit in a soldier’s pocket. The 1,227 unique titles in the series were selected to appeal to a wide variety of interests, including literary classics, contemporary bestsellers, and various works of nonfiction.
At a time when books were banned or burned in Nazi Germany, sending books to soldiers overseas was seen as patriotic act. The slogan of the Council on Books in Wartime, “Books are weapons in the war of ideas,” reflected their belief that books were important for spreading the ideals of freedom and democracy. The books selected need not have lofty themes to be a part of the program, however, they simply had to be something that soldiers wanted to read. Books, the military discovered, were excellent morale boosters. A book could entertain a soldier anxiously waiting during long periods of inactivity, or it might be a soothing distraction for a soldier who had recently endured the agonies of battle.
At Hornbake Library, we have several Armed Services Editions in our Special Collections. The examples on our shelves include a collection of essays by humorist Robert Benchley, an autobiography of the satirist H. L. Mencken, a volume of poems by Robert Frost, a novel by Hemingway, and a collection of short stories by Katherine Anne Porter.
An earlier effort led by librarians, the “Victory Book Campaign” of 1942-1943, was successful in collecting millions of books for soldiers, but experience had shown that the hardback books donated were too bulky and heavy for wartime conditions. Understanding that books were nonetheless essential to the war effort, book publishers formed the Council on Books in Wartime to mass produce paperbacks for the military.
The war led them to creatively reimagine the format of a book– most were stapled (later glued) on the short side and printed with small type across two columns. This allowed for fitting more words onto a page, and it was also believed to be easier for battle-weary soldiers to read. They came in two sizes, but both were small enough to fit in a soldier’s pocket. As book presses were not equipped to print such tiny books, the council used magazine presses instead, which had the added benefit of enabling them to use thinner paper. The result was a small book that weighed about a fifth of the typical hardback and was significantly cheaper to produce at five to six cents a copy.
The Armed Services Editions were extremely popular, with crowds of soldiers gathering in anticipation every time a new shipment arrived. Joe Allen, a member of the Council who later enlisted, observed, “I have seen many a man who never before had the patience or inclination to read a book, pick up one of the Council’s and become absorbed and ask for more.”
A surprisingly large number of soldiers also felt compelled to write to the authors whose books they most appreciated, and evidence of this is found in the library’s Katherine Anne Porter papers. A Naval intelligence officer named Roy Swift wrote to Porter in October 1945, while he was on a transport ship in the Pacific making his way home. He said that he grew to appreciate Porter’s short stories even more while reading them overseas because the setting and characters reminded him of home.
Another soldier wrote to Porter in May 1945 and confided in her his worries for a friend who had “been going through all Hell” after being wounded on an African battlefield and witnessing the death of five friends. The soldier asked Porter if she might consider reading some short stories he had written while convalescing in the hospital.
Porter received over six hundred letters like these from soldiers, and what she read convinced her that it was “a very superior army indeed.” She felt “pleasure and pride” in the fact that “at least a few GI’s felt that I understood them very well.”
The letters Porter received from soldiers support what historians like Molly Guptill Manning, author of When Books Went to War, view as the lasting benefits of the Armed Services Editions. According to Manning, soldiers came out of the war with a greater appreciation for reading, and more than a few felt inspired to become writers as well. The format of the books was also influential, as it generated an increased demand for paperbacks at a time when the industry had previously been dominated by hardbacks.
If you are interested in taking a closer look at the Armed Services Editions in our collection, visit the Maryland Room to explore these and other literary treasures in our Literature and Rare Books collections.
 Molly Guptill Manning, When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II (Boston: Mariner Books, 2014), 76-79.
 Yoni Appelbaum, “Publishers Gave Away 129, 951, 031 Books During World War II,” The Atlantic, September 10, 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/09/publishers-gave-away-122951031-books-during-world-war-ii/379893/.
 Roy Swift to Katherine Anne Porter, October 11, 1945, Series 1.9, Box 69, Folder 16, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries, College Park, MD.
 B. V. to Katherine Anne Porter, May 6, 1945, Series 1.9, Box 69, Folder 16, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries, College Park, MD.
 Katherine Anne Porter to Joseph A. Barry, January 17, 1948, Series 1.9, Box 69, Folder 19, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries, College Park, MD.
Tracee Haupt is a graduate student in the HiLS program at the University of Maryland. She is pursuing an M.A. in History, an M.L.I.S. with a specialization in Archives and Digital Curation, and a certificate in Museum Scholarship and Material Culture. She is the Access Services Graduate Assistant in the Special Collections and University Archives.