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Paperback Patriotism: How WWII bred a nation of readers

By Katie Cline

When you hold a paperback copy of a bestseller, you’re likely more transfixed by the riveting plot and well-developed characters within than the vessel itself. Perhaps the cover is artistic or the pages deckled, lending you minutely more appreciation for the book itself, but still, the story holds 99.9 percent of your fascination. It’s extremely unlikely that as you consider the book in your hands, you’re thinking about the history of the printing style for that book — and who could blame you? How captivating could the history of paperback printing possibly be? Actually, the origin of mass-market paperbacks has a surprisingly intriguing and patriotic story!

While paperbound books have existed in some form or other since around the mid-19th century, paperbacks as they are typically recognized today came about because of the Second World War. Before World War II, most books were either relatively expensive hardback editions or cheap, individually printed paper bindings. As such, highbrow reading was largely restricted to those with a highbrow budget for the $2 hardcover works of literature (equal to about $30 in 2018; minimum wage at the time was around $4 by 2018 standards). But these financial constraints were rarely noticed, as reading was largely seen by the masses as an academic endeavor rather than an enjoyable pastime. However, when soldiers were shipped off to fight in the war with nothing to fend off boredom in between battles, the climate surrounding the activity changed.

In the face of a conflict that seemed to weaken wills, squash confidence, and snuff patriotism, a group of like-minded booksellers, publishers, librarians, and authors came together to form a non-profit organization known as “The Council of Books in Wartime”. Their goal was to use books to raise the morale of the American people, boost the will to win, expose the true nature of the enemies, and spread information and intelligence throughout the people. Their slogan was “Books are weapons in the war of ideas.” Inspired by the book-burning practices of the Nazi powers, the Council of Books wanted to do the opposite and disseminate thought and the written word as widely as possible.

In February of 1943, the chairman of the committee, W. W. Norton, spearheaded the campaign, going before his fellow publishers and imploring they see the merit of the cause. While ideologically, the book producers understood the aim of the committee and the prospect it held for the intellectual advancement of a major portion of the country, the proposal made no financial sense. How could they possibly produce enough books to disseminate so widely when they were so expensive? The committee’s proposition: sell each book for 6¢ to the U.S. military.

The publishers balked. There was no way hardcover books could be produced so cheaply — it just wasn’t possible. The Council had a solution, though. While book presses could never produce for so little, magazine presses could. Using the format of a pulp magazine, they printed text from two books on each magazine page, one book on the top half of the page, another on the bottom. The magazine copy was then cut in half to produce two separate books, both wider than they were tall. In fact, each book measured about 5.5 to 6.5 inches wide by 3.75 to 4.5 inches tall — just small enough to slip neatly into a military uniform’s cargo pocket. These editions were called “Armed Services Editions”.

The savings from using magazine presses were astronomical, but the publishers still worried about how their investment could possibly be returned. In their minds, if the country got used to 6¢ copies of classic literature, how could they possibly be convinced to buy a $2 hardcover again? The Council soothed the publishers, insisting that if the populace was instilled with a true love of reading from the cheap, raggedy copies, they would return from the war yearning for nicer copies of the stories in which they’d found comfort and knowledge.

Some of the publishers remained skeptical, unsure of the intelligence and appreciation for high literature that could be found in the lowest ranks of the military. But they were shortly proven quite wrong. Confined to foxholes and overseas bases, the fight against boredom raged. When the shipments began in July of 1934, the Council sent one box per 150 soldiers, figuring they’d test the waters and see if the interest was there — they wildly underestimated. By spring 1945, they were shipping 155,000 crates of books each month. When the books arrived, the soldiers tore into them ravenously.

A soldier in Marshall Islands wrote in his correspondence that his fellows read by dim flashlights in shelters after air-raid sirens had rang out and they were meant to be in foxholes. The books were dog-eared, limp, and falling apart from overuse. The soldiers would take turns reading before passing the book on to another; they’d read aloud at night; they’d pull the books apart and share installments among each other. Mysteries and comics mingled in the shipments with classic literature and new fiction. No longer financially restrictive, military men were reading what they might have never touched otherwise. Literature became a common obsession among the ranks and the world of books and publishing was forever altered.

To show the long-lasting impact on the culture of literature in America, take the following as an example. In 1945, one of the books chosen to be sent overseas was a relatively unknown book published in 1925 — it had never achieved much popular success, so the rights were cheap. Having sold only 120 copies in 1944 and only 155 in 145, it was shipped out with few expectations. The 155,000 copies of The Great Gatsby that were sent overseas gave the unknown book the exposure it needed to go on to become one of the most well-known and beloved books of the 20th century.

Joe Allen, a member of the Council who joined the ranks as a private soldier, was able to report directly on the program’s influence. “You are instilling in them … a taste for good reading that will surely persist come victory,” he said. “I have seen many a man who never before had the patience or inclination to read a book, pick up one of the Council’s and become absorbed and ask for more.”

By the end of the program in 1947, over 122 million copies of 1,324 titles had been sent overseas, exposing soldiers to books they might have never read otherwise.

W. W. Norton’s prediction became reality. He insisted upon the program’s birth that “the very fact that millions of men will have the opportunity to learn what a book is and what it can mean is likely now and in postwar years to exert a tremendous influence on the postwar course of the industry.” The habits acquired by millions from exposure to these books weren’t easily broken. The public appetite for literature survived the war and was brought back home after America’s victory.

The publishing industry was stimulated and revived post-war. After noticing the soldiers’ love of paperbound literature, the publishing industry redoubled their efforts and decided to offer it as a reading option permanently. By 1950, 214 million copies of 642 titles had been sold — enough for every adult in the U.S. to own a couple.

Reading was no longer a restrictive activity for the rich or academically inclined. Anyone who desired to could fill up their personal bookshelves with inexpensive literature. The entire culture surrounding reading changed, instilling in future generations an appreciation for books of all sorts. Reading became a national pastime commonly shared by all classes, uniting the country through literature.

Sources:

Yoni Appelbaum (September 10, 2014). “Publishers Gave Away 122,951,031 Books During World War II“. The Atlantic.

Cole, John Y. (September 30, 2015). “Books in Action: The Armed Services Editions”. Library of Congress Blog.

AP (May 12, 1943). “Army To Buy 50,000 Books For Soldiers”. The Milwaukee Journal.

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