Armed Services Editions were pocket-sized editions of literary works distributed to service members during World War II. There was a book written about them that has been on my TBR list for way too long: When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win WWII (2015) by Molly Guptill Manning.
When America entered World War II in 1941, we faced an enemy that had banned and burned 100 million books. Outraged librarians launched a campaign to send free books to American troops and gathered 20 million hardcover donations. In 1943, the War Department and the publishing industry stepped in with an extraordinary program: 120 million small, lightweight paperbacks for troops to carry in their pockets and rucksacks in every theater of war. These Armed Services Editions were beloved by the troops and are still fondly remembered today. Soldiers read them while waiting to land at Normandy, in hellish trenches in the midst of battles in the Pacific, in field hospitals, and on long bombing flights. They helped rescue The Great Gatsby from obscurity and made Betty Smith, author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, into a national icon. When Books Went to War is the inspiring story of the Armed Services Editions, and a treasure for history buffs and book lovers alike.
Spotted in the wild
Earlier this month, I came across an Armed Services Edition while helping to process a donation at the Coast Guard Academy Library Special Collections where I do volunteer archival work. It was such a pleasant surprise to discover one in the wild.
My Heart Leaps Up and Other Poems by William Wordsworth is the edition that I came across while accessioning a box of files. Louis Untermeyer selected the poems and also wrote an introduction.
While scrolling through my photos this week looking for something unrelated, I noticed two other Armed Services Editions that I had photographed.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville, published 1944. The bottom text reads, “This is the complete book–not a digest.” This must be one of the thicker Armed Services Editions, but still pocket sized. I wonder about the font size. I photographed this one at The Newberry in Chicago when it was on display for their exhibit celebrating the 200th anniversary of Melville’s birth in 2019.
The Armed Services Edition of Moby-Dick was one of over 1,200 differentfrom Melville Exhibition Checklist
titles produced for free distribution to United States troops during World
War II. One of the Council on Books in Wartime’s main “weapons in the war
of ideas,” the books were chosen for entertainment and educational value,
but also to promote and demonstrate American ideals of freedom of thought
and expression. Moby-Dick (slightly abridged for this edition) almost
certainly found its widest readership to date in this edition. Soldiers and
sailors could find a mix of relevance and relief in its short and eclectic
chapters, scenario echoing the circumstances of men at war, and explorations
of tyranny, madness, and destruction.
I was tempted, for a minute, to start collecting these editions. But then I thought about money and space. I came to the conclusion that it might be just as fun to simply snap a photo when I come across one and add it to this post. So for now, that’s the plan.