Book distribution to WWII GIs revived

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Dec. 11, 2002 at 7:00 AM
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NEW YORK, Dec. 11 (UPI) -- A project that distributed 120 million free copies of books to American GIs in World War II has been revived by three publishing firms that have already printed four books in the same oblong "cargo pocket" editions for servicemen on duty in the worldwide war on terror.

This pilot project involving Washington Square Press of Simon & Schuster, Dover Publications, and Hyperion Press has been organized by Andrew Carroll, an author and collector of pocket-size books printed for GIs starting in 1943. Carroll's project has been funded with $50,000 from a corporate source, and he is now talking to several other book publishers about joining the project.

The Pentagon-approved books currently being distributed are "War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars," edited by Carroll, "The Art of War," the Chinese military classic by Sun Tzu, "American Military Heroes from the Civil War to the Present," by Allan Mikaelian, and Shakespeare's "Henry V." Some 100,000 copies of these books are on their way to U.S. military bases.

The Armed Services Editions published during World War II included 1,300 titles that ranged from literary classics and popular novels to non-fiction works and plays, and Carroll hopes to duplicate this variety of material in his revived program. At the moment he is limited to works published by the participating houses and books in the public domain.

The popularity of the books in World War II resulted in the proliferation of inexpensive, paperback pocket books in the late 1940s and 1950s, led by Dover, Dell, and several other publishing houses. Social historians credit the wartime book distribution program with sparking the interest of a whole generation of Americans in reading books and making them a part of their lives.

Before Armed Service Editions was discontinued in 1947, 70 publishers were participating in the program, contributing books ranging from "The Odyssey" to "Forever Amber." At the time, it was said to be the largest giveaway of books in history with the possible exception of the global distribution of Gideon Bibles to hotels. Carroll is determined that the renewed distribution effort match the original in magnitude.

"If more publishers get behind this, there is no reason we can't start sending out hundreds of thousands of books," Carroll said in an interview. "There is nothing more I'd like to see than this little effort transformed into what it was in the 1940s -- a major collaboration between publishers and the military."

The World War II project was promoted by the Council of Books in Wartime, made up of publishers, booksellers, and librarians dedicated to making books "weapons in the war of ideas." Publishers sold their pocket-size editions to the military for 6 cents a volume and they were distributed only overseas so as not to compete with the domestic book market.

The books were shipped as freight and often distributed during mail call in American military camps or handed out to patients in military hospitals.

They were intended to be read in off-duty hours, but it was reported that GIs took them into foxholes and sometimes read them under fire. After the Allied occupation of Germany, books by such Nazi-banned German language authors as Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka were passed on by servicemen to Germans avid to read them for the first time.

The program even made some authors "best sellers."

F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" sold only 25,000 copies from the time of its publication in 1925 until 1942. The Armed Service Editions project distributed 155,000 pocket-size copies of the book to servicemen who showed a particularly liking for contemporary novels selected for distribution by a committee of literary figures headed by literary critic and editor Mark Van Doren.

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