Our associate editor, Caitlin Newman, has recently published an excellent article on Armed Services Editions during World War II—pocket-sized paperbacks published by the military in partnership with New York publishers and distributed to GIs and sailors across the world. These books, as the article says, provided “a few square inches of home.”
The concept of issuing pocket-sized books to the military didn’t come to the government immediately, nor was the idea of sending books to those overseas new. Book drives for the military had occurred regularly at libraries across the country during World War I. But after the outbreak of World War II, Americans began raiding their personal libraries for books to send to troops overseas with a vigor that far outstripped their previous efforts—motivated this time by nearly a decade of exposure to news stories about Nazi book bans and photographs of towering infernos built to consume “un-German” tomes. The first Nazi book burnings, organized across 34 college towns by the German Students Association on May 10, 1933, reduced some 25,000 books to ash; by 1938, the Nazi government had outright banned 18 categories of books—4,175 titles in all—and the works of 565 authors, many of them Jewish. Now that the United States was officially at war, what better way to strike back at the enemy than by allowing soldiers to read exactly what they wished? Books were no longer simple diversions for fighting men—they had become totems signifying what those men were fighting for.
IMAGE: The Armed Services Edition of The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner