ReWard: When books went to war.

Earlier today, I spent a few minutes exchanging e-Mails with a friend about a book pertaining to the Second World War that’s currently in development. I made a comment that the proposed art for the cover reminded me of something somebody like Bill Mauldin might have drawn back during the war; not the subject matter, but the general style…that sort of thing. That brief back-n-forth got me to thinking about Mauldin’s seminal collection of wartime cartoons, Up Front.

Naturally, I went digging for one of my copies of this book. I actually have four: an original hardcover edition my father gave to me, a more recent reprint of that edition, a 1950s paperback version and my prized Armed Services Edition.

This last one, of course, started me thinking about ASEs in general. My brain has a tendency to hopscotch once I get going on something. Sorry. As I started looking through the small number of ASEs I’ve collected, I remembered that I’d once written about these fascinating little books, back when LiveJournal was still my blog du jour. It’s been a few years, so I figured it’s safe to dust off that entry for old time’s sake.

Originally posted on May 4, 2010: “When books went to war.”

Today’s mail brought with it an item I’d been waiting for these past few days, an “Armed Services Edition” of the science fiction novel When Worlds Collide by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie (Yeah, it was a book before it was a movie, and it even has a sequel, After Worlds Collide).

For those who might not know, the Armed Services Editions were a series of paperback books printed and distributed to American troops during World War II. Between 1943 and 1947, more than 120 million copies of the ASEs were printed, featuring in excess of 1,300 titles ranging from literary classics, pulp fiction, and poetry to history, military topics, science, biographies and various other subjects. Almost all of the titles were unabridged, though due to printing restrictions around 90 of the books selected for the program were edited/trimmed/condensed, when possible by the original authors (by all accounts, the abridgments were strictly for length, rather than content). Printed on the same presses used for digest-sized magazines, the ASEs were typeset so that four titles could be printed at once, with the resulting books sized so that they could be carried in the cargo pocket of a soldier’s uniform.

According to many articles I’ve read, the books were a tremendous hit with troops desperate for anything to help pass the long stretches of low or no activity while in theater. The books – like magazines and comic books of the day – were printed as inexpensively as possible, and intended to be read, passed on, and perhaps ultimately thrown away. Indeed, the ASEs paved the way for the large-scale production and distribution of mass-market paperback books, with publishers like Penguin Books and Pocket (hah!) Books leading the way. Despite this inherent “disposability,” many copies of ASEs still exist and have been long sought by book collectors. There are only two known complete sets, one in the Library of Congress and another owned by a private collector.

As I was already something of a WWII “student” (calling one’s self a “fan” or “buff” of a war has always sounded grossly inappropriate to me), I started collecting ASEs almost by accident a few years ago, when I happened across a copy of The War of the Worlds in a used bookstore. Since then, I’ve acquired twenty-three different titles, ranging from SF to mysteries to a couple of C.S. Forrester’s Hornblower novels, military fiction and history, and even a copy of Bill Mauldin’s classic Up Front. Naturally, the condition of individual copies varies, but I’ve been fortunate that most of the ones I’ve acquired are in pretty decent shape, including one that looks to be in almost-mint condition. Not bad for 60-odd years on, eh?

Trivia: Want to know what the rarest and most sought-after ASE title is?

 The Adventures of Superman,
considered by many collectors to be the “Holy Grail” of the Armed Services Editions.
No shit.

And no, I don’t have a copy. You’ll know when that day comes. Believe me.

In 2002, author Andrew Carroll revived the ASE program as a means of supporting troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Seven titles, including a condensed version of his own War Letters, were printed and distributed. At the time, I even approached then-Pocket Books and Star Trek editor John Ordover about offering any Trek titles in the format, and he did investigate the possibility. I don’t remember the exact details, but the gist of it was that it apparently was cheaper to just print up more copies of books in regular mass-market format and donate them.

(And not for nothin’, but it would’ve been way cool to have an ASE edition of The Last World War. Ah, well….)

As for the ASEs I’ve collected and other than When Worlds Collide, I have no way of knowing if any of them were carried by soldiers, sailors, or Marines in Europe or in the Pacific. I’d like to think most of them were, and that they provided their owners with a brief respite from the chaos, terror and…yes…boredom of war.

You can read more about the ASE program (including a complete list of titles) at these sites:

Books Go to War: The Armed Services Editions in World War II
Wikipedia: Armed Services Editions

(Yes, I do tend to blather on about my various hobbies, don’t I?)


6 thoughts on “ReWard: When books went to war.

  1. One of my favorite scenes in “The Big Red One” is when Carradine’s character approaches the new guy, reading a book (looks like an ASE), and asks him what he thinks of it. “Damn good.” He says. Carradine tells him it’s his book. The kid argues no way, his mother sent it to him (or some such). Carradine clarifies, “No, I mean it’s mine, I wrote it.” Always liked that exchange.


  2. I have two copies of THE KISSED CORPSE by Asa Baker(Davis Dresser) that fit that mold. One is a digest version, the other put together like a comic book with pages folded double and held together with large staples(rather rusted by these days). I suspect that it what you discuss as the book was pre-WWII.


  3. Actually, I bought that copy of Up Front at the Honolulu Punchbowl Cemetary where Bill is were there, too but you probably dont remember-think you weremthree at the time.


    1. I didn’t know where the book came from, originally. It has a copyright date of 1945, and it’s still in pretty good shape. The dust cover’s got some dings to it, but that’s not surprising, considering how old it is. I have it stored in a protective sleeve, these days.


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