Monday, October 17, 2011

Guest Author James R. Benn

Leighton here.
I very much enjoy reading books about WWII, both fiction and non-fiction.
And Jim Benn's novels have become great favorites of mine.

He just published A Mortal Terror, his sixth in the Billy Boyle series.
And like all of his others, I highly recommend it.
Here's Jim:

Armed Services Editions

The Second World War produced many fundamental societal changes in addition to the world-wide destruction. The war signaled the end of empires, the beginning of women in the workplace on a large scale basis, and brought the United States to the center of the world stage. It also caused advancements in medicine and technology that far outstripped what had been thought achievable during the Great Depression scant years before.
One great change that is not widely understood is near and dear to those of us who write for a living: reading. World War II changed the reading habits of a generation, and that generation went home after the war with powerful notion that having books close at hand was a good idea. Paperbacks, especially.
Paperback editions were a relatively new idea when the war broke out. Penguin Books was launched in Great Britain in 1935, followed by Pocket Books in the U.S. in 1939. While many thought the wartime rationing of paper would send the publishing industry into a tailspin, the opposite was true. Publishers geared up paperback printing on cheap paper, fueling the demand for a quick, inexpensive escape from factory shifts, the boredom of troop transports, and other wartime activities. Travel restrictions meant more people at home, and paperbacks were good company.
Publishers began to encourage readers to share their paperbacks with servicemen once they were done. The American Library Association and the Red Cross organized book donations, distributing books to military installations in the U.S. via their Victory Book Campaign.  This effort was overwhelmed by the demand and logistical problems. Books were not a standard size, and often the titles donated were cast-offs of little interest.
In 1942, the Council on Books in Wartime was formed. It was a non-profit organization of publishers, booksellers, librarians and authors dedicated to the idea of “books as weapons in the war of ideas”.

The Council got to work quickly, deciding to print the books in a standard “pocket” size on pulp magazine presses.  On average, the books cost six cents to produce, and were given free to troops overseas and in stateside hospitals.  It was the greatest free giveaway of books in history. Patriotic publishers took reduced profits and split the penny per book royalty with the author. It was a worthwhile investment.

“They were extremely popular. I always had two or three in my pack in addition to the volume I was reading. They were a god send,” a World War II veteran of the European Theater of Operations recently told me. By the end of the war, 123 million Armed Services Editions were in circulation, with 1,322 titles represented. They were everywhere, at field hospitals, on troop transports, replacement depots, USO centers, on giant aircraft carriers and invasion landing craft. One G.I., reading Candide on board a vessel bound for the Normandy beaches, said “These little books are a great thing. They take you away.”

There were classics like Moby Dick, westerns by Max Brand, and mysteries by Agatha Christie and other popular authors.

Six short years after the first paperback was published in the United States, what was thought of as an experiment had become a established fact. Paperbacks were here to stay, and hundreds of thousands of young men whom might never have otherwise read a book to completion were hooked on the reading habit.  Long hours of inactivity and travel caused many to turn to the Armed Services Editions, which were so popular that a reader often would tear the binding in half so a pal could start it while he finished.

While the reading tastes of servicemen and women closely mirrored the reading public back home, there were some favorites. Any title that hinted at raciness—The Lively Lady, or The Star Spangled Virgin—were greatly in demand, although bound to disappoint the sex-starved G.I.  Perhaps the most popular title was the best-selling A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which was the first ASE title to be published in a second edition. Author Betty Smith received hundreds of letters from servicemen who thanked her for reminding them of what waited for them at home, and showed what they were fighting for.

Some scholars conjecture that the resurgence of interest in the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald in the late 1940s was due in no small part to the ASE print runs of his titles.  Veterans returning home and attending college under the G.I. Bill brought with them an awareness of literature they would not have had without the ASE program.
The seed of reading had been planted. The book had been transformed from being thought of as an expensive hardcover that would sit on the shelf, to a mass-produced media that could be carried anywhere, shared with friends, talked about, even ripped in half. The generation that grew up in the Depression and could often not afford hardcovers now reveled in access to reading material. Books had become ubiquitous. It was a massive cultural shift, and publishers and authors continue to reap the benefits today.
The Armed Services Editions are one of the many questions about World War II I never thought to ask my father when he was alive (picture below).  But I do recall him often sitting at the kitchen table, a cup of coffee at his elbow, reading a book. Histories and mysteries were his favorites. Now I have to wonder, did Sergeant Harold J. Benn pick up the reading habit in uniform, carrying dog-eared ASE paperbacks in his pack?  I’d like to think so.


  1. SOS Aloha has written about Operation Paperback, which "collects gently used books" for U.S. troops deployed overseas.

  2. Perhaps information about soldiers reading on the battlefield might encourage more young men to begin the reading habit. It is generally more difficult to get boys into the habit than girls but an imagine of heroes with books in their hands might shift the image of the reader as s nerd into an image of a man who is curious and wants to feed his imagination while learning something.

    As a history teacher, I often used historical fiction as a way to get more students involved. There are books to satisfy everyone's interest. Soldiers in combat, like police officers, fire fighters, and emergency room personnel, describe their on-duty time as long hours of boredom punctuated by heart-stopping activity. A book helps with the boredom and keeps the brain engaged so it is ready to shift into "fight" mode a bit faster.

    The ASE program likely played a role in encouraging returning soldiers to go back to school. So many doctors, lawyers, and teachers from working class backgrounds were able to get the necessary education through the GI Bill. A history professor I met in college was an undergrad at Harvard when the war started. He enlisted and, after the war, picked up where he left off. He always told classes that the Commencement address at his graduation from Harvard in 1947 was not one graduates would forget. General George Marshall was the speaker and he used his speech to announce the Marshall Plan.

    The two biggest road blocks that stop many high school students from graduating are poor attendance and poor reading skills. There isn't much teachers can do about the first but good attendance would do wonders to improve the ability to read.

  3. Like father, like son. I'd say Sergeant Harold J. Benn did.
    Always learn fascinating history from you Jim!

  4. What an interesting post! I love the idea of books as weapons in the war of ideas. Sadly, some people still put books in the battleground.

    This makes me recall a moment in HBO's Band of Brothers series. One of the soldiers was reading a paperback. I remember getting up close to the TV so I could read the title. It was A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN.

  5. This is so cool. I never considered the history of paperbacks from this angle. I love it.

  6. Thanks for the comments, folks. Billy Boyle will certainly come across some ASE paperbacks in one of his next adventures!

  7. Fascinating! And it makes you wonder whether something like that could be mounted today, or be of interest to today's troops.

  8. My dad, a combat Marine in the Pacific, went in to the service with a 4th grade education and came out a life-long avid reader! Thanks for this insight into the history that surrounded him.

  9. Thanks for the great post! I had no idea. I wonder if there is some way to introduce swaths of young men and women to reading today.

    Gotta go. My son (literally) just handed me a book to read him (The Outcast, by Kathryn Lasky).

  10. Wonderful and so poignant. I need to check into operation paperback. I do this semi annual purge so I can get more books, of course.

  11. I enjoyed reading about the armed forces books. I spent a year and a half in the Army Air Forces and didn't go overseas but don't recall running into the books. May be my poor memory. I read mostly magazines and newspapers in those days, leading to a journalism career after college. That's when I started reading books, mostly mysteries. And finally got around to writing them. I think the idea of giving books to servicemen is a great one, though.

  12. Wonderful post about the power of books! Thank you for sharing, James. It's hard to imagine what we would do in tough times without books for companions and for escape.

  13. Thanks for this post, James. I read everything about World War II I can get my hands on but this is one aspect I simply never thought of.
    Pat Browning

  14. "Six short years after the first paperback was published in the United States, what was thought of as an experiment had become a established fact."

    One cannot help but think about the analogy to what is happening today with ebooks, eh?

  15. Christine - proves the old adage, 'the more things change...'

  16. A great post. I am sorry, living in almost another planet in bangladesh, I had not even heard of the writer Jim Benn, less said the better about the growth of the paperback industry. But then, thank the Lord above (or wherever He/She is hibernating) and the Internet here! And, yep, agree totally with Christinekling there.