Each book was half the size of a Reader's Digest -- a little oblong paper-covered book. They fit perfectly into a soldier's field jacket. Classics of American and English literature, toted into war 40 years ago. "Moby Dick." "Lord Jim." "Chicken Every Sunday." ("Chicken Every Sunday"? Yes--"Chicken Every Sunday--My Life with Mother's Boarders," by Rosemary Taylor.)
Arnold Gates, a former Army man, now a writer, carried Carl Sandburg's "Storm Over the Land" in his helmet during the battle of Saipan. When there was a lull in the fighting, he would take it out and read about another battle. Sandburg later inscribed the book for Gates.
The mass paperback book shipment to soldiers during World War II would later develop into a multimillion dollar paperback industry, but what was celebrated yesterday over a quiet, light lunch at the Library of Congress was the 40th anniversary of the first non-profit Armed Services Editions of those paperbacks.
"It was not just 'Moby Dick,' but regionalized American books, too," said James Gilreath of the Library's rare books and special collections division. "Books about the Brooklyn Dodgers, a book about Joe Louis . . . They were reminders of American culture--a reminder of what they were fighting for."
Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin presided over the lunch, sponsored by the Library's Center for the Book, whose stated goal is "to keep the book flourishing." Center board members such as Clare Boothe Luce and Simon Michael Bessie, senior vice president of Harper & Row Publishers (which chairs the Center) were among the 40 guests. There were some former readers of the Armed Services Editions--such as Arnold Gates--and publishing figures such as Ian Ballantine, the director of Peacock Press, who suggested more than 40 years ago that the Army provide the paper for paperback books and distribute them free to the armed forces.
The first book distributed was "The Moon is Down" by John Steinbeck. Several months later, the Council on Books in Wartime, an organization of publishers guided by Warder W. Norton, established the non-profit Editions for the Armed Services with the cooperation of the Army and the Navy. The first book that group published was Leo Rosten's "The Education of Hyman Kaplan," in 1943. Over the next four years, 1,300 titles and 130 million copies of books went to soldiers.
Clare Boothe Luce recalled seeing the books on the Italian Front. "I remember going into the pup tents," said Luce, a former member of Congress and a former ambassador to Italy, "and every GI had one or two of them."
As a group, the books are considered a rarity today--"a phenomenal collection," Gilreath said. But the idea of paperback books was not new in the 1940s. "In every war, there's a mobilization to put books out for soldiers," he said. "There've been books with paper covers going back to the 19th century . . . During the Civil War there were lurid books about Buffalo Bill and there were tracts sent by religious groups. You had two extremes."