I almost managed to let September slip past without posting something on this topic. Where did the month go, anyway?
You’ve probably seen them in bookshops or antique stores here and there. Maybe your grandfather has a couple in an old footlocker or other box of mementos from a life lived long ago and perhaps rarely mentioned. You don’t really hear much about them anymore, outside of book collector circles anyway. What are they?
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 122 million copies of the ASEs were printed, featuring 1,322 titles (including 99 reprints). Among the selections were literary classics, pulp fiction, and poetry, along with history, military topics, science, biographies and various other subjects. All but 90 of the books were unabridged, and those which were trimmed or condensed were done so whenever possible by the original authors, due to 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. Like magazines and comic books of the day, the books were printed as inexpensively as possible, and intended to be read, passed on, and perhaps ultimately thrown away. Indeed, the ASEs ended up changing the face of publishing in the 1940s and 1950s with the large-scale production and distribution of mass-market paperback books, with publishers like Penguin and Pocket leading the way.
By all accounts I’ve come across, the books were a huge hit with the troops, offering brief respite and escapes from the demands and tedium of life in a war zone. For many young fighting men, the ASEs represented their first opportunity to read a complete book. It was not unusual for authors to receive letters from soldiers thanking them for introducing them to the joy and solace to be found in the written word.
Despite their inherent “disposability,” many copies of ASEs still exist and are favorite prizes of book collectors. There are only two complete sets known to exist: one in the Library of Congress and another owned by a private collector. Some titles are rarer than others, and the most-coveted ASE title remains this little tome:
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. The program did not catch on with the same fervor as its predecessor, likely owing to the fact that most publishers figured it simply was cheaper to just print up more copies of books in regular mass-market format and donate them. Still, the program–funded through private donations–continues.
These little books have fascinated me for years, and I’ve managed to acquire a small collection of my own. The titles I’ve acquired include SF classics like The War of the Worlds and When Worlds Collide, a couple of Horatio Hornblower novels, a few 1940s noir thrillers, and even a copy of Bill Mauldin’s wonderful collection of wartime cartoons, Up Front. Sadly, I’ve not managed to get my grubby paws on a copy of The Adventures of Superman, but…I’m workin’ on it.
You can read more about the Armed Services Editions program (including a complete list of titles) at these sites: