Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Books Go To War

In 1940, the U.S. began to mobilize large numbers of armed forces. Officials knew from their experience during WWI that a good way to improve morale was to make reading material, especially books, available to the troops. With assistance from librarians around the country, the military initiated the National Defense Book Campaign. (Eventually renamed the Victory Book Campaign).

The good news? There was an overwhelming response. Thousands upon thousands of books were brought to collection centers. Thousands of people banded together to plan, publicize, sort, store and distribute the books. Financial support also poured in.

The bad news? The quantity of the donated materials outweighed the quality. Nearly half of the more than ten million books contributed were discarded as unacceptable because of poor, unreadable condition or inappropriate subject matter.

Other drawbacks to the Victory Book Campaign included inefficiencies in the process, the slowing down of donations, and the weight and size of the books that made them expensive to ship and heavy for the men to carry. In late 1942, the Army’s Special Services Division stepped in to remedy the situation by working in partnership with the Council on Books in Wartime, a non-governmental, non-profit organization comprised of booksellers, publishers, librarians, authors and others. The Council was formed to contribute “to the war effort of the United Peoples” and viewed books as “weapons in the war of ideas.”

During the spring of 1943, the Council launched the effort for which it would become best known, the Armed Services Edition. These small books were specifically produced to fit into a cargo pocket of a uniform making them convenient for soldiers.

ASEs were incredibly popular and included fiction (contemporary and classics) and nonfiction (biographies, religious, science and self-help) titles. They were shared, re-read and ripped into sections so they could accommodate two or more readers at the same time. Two of the more sought after titles were Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Rosemary Taylor’s Chicken Every Sunday. Years later, many soldiers said that ASES were the first books they had picked up since high school. Others indicated the ASEs gave them the confidence to enter college after the war.

By the time the program ended in 1947, it had printed 122,951,031 copies of 1,322 books-more than ten times the number of books destroyed by the Nazis.

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A freelance writer for over ten years, Linda Matchett also writes historical fiction. She is currently seeking a publisher for her series about war correspondent Ruth Brown. Visit her at www.lindashentonmatchett.com




  1. My first thought was about the weight, but the smaller prints fixed that problem.

  2. Love this. And as always American ingenuity comes to the rescue.

  3. Interesting post. Thanks for sharing!

  4. I just blogged about this last week on my own blog! Did you read "When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II" by Molly Guptill Manning? So interesting. I can just see a soldier getting a book on how to crochet.