The Irvin Department is pleased to announce that it has recently acquired the three final titles needed to complete its collection of the Armed Services Editions series of books. The books, Peter Field’s Fight for Powder Valley, William Colt MacDonald’s Master of the Mesa, and Clarence E. Mulford’s Hopalog Cassidy’s Protégé, are part of a series produced by the Council on Books in Wartime, from 1943 to 1947. It’s estimated that over 122 million copies of 1,322 titles were distributed to service members during the second world war.
The ASEs are literal pocket books in that their unique size and shape was designed to fit soldiers’ cargo pockets. Read in all manner of contexts from waiting in line for food to lying in a bunk on a submarine to waiting for action at the front, the books proved extremely popular among the troops and offered welcome respites from the hardships of battle by fostering the emotions and imagination.
Titles included a large range of topics from classics to modern bestsellers, genre fiction, poetry, romance, political theory, and popular science. Works such as Homer’s Odyssey reflect contemporary ideas of classic literature while also speaking to precarious nature of war and feelings of homesickness that many soldiers experienced. Alternately, the seafaring works of Herman Melville proved popular among sailors who were surprised to read about islands where they had recently been stationed, and Lilian Smith’s Strange Fruit, which went through two ASE printings, shows that censorship and controversy were not issues for the CBW.
The compact, oblong shape of the ASEs comes from their having been printed two different books at a time a time in a digest size format, one above the other, in a “two-up” format before being cut in two. This was done to maximize speed and efficiency. The Irvin Department has several surviving uncut “two-ups,” such as this volume of A Wartime Whitman & Dear Baby.
In addition to fiction and poetry, there were also many books about practical subjects and political science. Interestingly, while most of the copies that the Irvin Department has are unannotated, a copy of Walter Lippmann’s U.S. Foreign Policy is heavily underlined with occasional notes, and a copy of Plato’s Republic lists the names, dates, and times when servicemen borrowed the title and contains some notation on the interior of the cover.
Many living authors of popular works of the period reported receiving letters from service men thanking them, and there’s evidence that the books inspired some soldiers to enroll in higher education after the war. There is even evidence that copies of ASEs left behind after the war continued to be read by people other than their intended audience, and other countries began publishing ASE-type books for their soldiers. The Irvin Department also own a number of related items including a shipping box from the 1940s that helps to contextualize the material circulation of their distribution, a record book of a young German man who kept a list of copies he read.
The Armed Service Editions were recently rebooted in a short run series edited by Andrew Carroll, during the 2000s. The new series contains titles that were not in the original series, such as Shakespeare’s Henry V.
The Armed Service Editions was likely history’s greatest undertaking in the free distribution of books. That it was inspired by and integral to the most extensive global war makes these books all the more important to the history of literature and bibliography. The Irvin Department is proud to have a full set and hopes these books will continue to inspire of love for reading for generations to come.