How World War II Helped Give Birth to the Softcover Book

Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As Nazi Germany was staging large-scale book burnings of any titles that went against its fascist beliefs, the United States sought to arm its soldiers during World War II with a weapon that was emblematic of the freedom of expression it was fighting to preserve: the softcover book. Merely meant to entertain the troops during the lulls in between combat, the country’s initiative to provide them with low-cost reading material found its way home after the war and forever changed the way the public reads its books.

The paperback book trend that had picked up steam in Germany and Britain was having a rougher start in the United States in the late 1930s, with Penguin and Pocket Books attempting to offer high-quality novels in a cheaper package, according to Atlas Obscura. Previous to this, softcover books typically featured quick entertainment like Westerns, cheap mysteries, tawdry romances, and pulpy adventure tales. Though Penguin and Pocket Books wanted to change that perception by offering far more notable works, many bookstores in the United States stuck to only selling novels as hardcovers aimed at a wealthier clientele. To most, a paperback printing of a great novel was nothing more than a novelty, and there simply wasn't an audience for inexpensive versions of high-quality reads. When America went to war, though, the paperback went with it.

The first effort to get books into troops’ hands was a donation drive run by the Army and the American Library Association. Called the Victory Book Campaign, the initiative proved only moderately successful. Though Americans came through with donations, many of the books the VBC received were unsuitable for troops overseas. After all, how many soldiers would want to pore over a copy of How to Knit while on the front lines? Plus, receiving tens of thousands of books from donors, having volunteers search for acceptable titles, and getting them to troops was laborious and wasteful, and the crates were often ignored in favor of shipping more important items like rations and ammo.

Raymond L. Trautman, head of the Army’s Library Section, had another plan. H. Stanley Thompson, a graphic artist working for the Army, approached Trautman with a way to print paperback books on the same presses used for magazines. The assembly would be quick, the books would be thin, and they would be small enough for soldiers to store in their pockets. If they could get publishers to print select titles and ship them directly to soldiers, it would prove far less time-consuming and expensive.

Trautman went to the Council of Books in Wartime—a trade group made up of publishing titans dedicated to getting books into the hands of troops—with the proposal. It was eventually agreed upon, with the different publishers on the council allowing many of their most famous books to be reprinted and sold to the military for just 6 cents per copy. Books would measure in at 512 by 378 inches or 612 by 412 inches depending on their length, and text would be printed in double columns on each page to reduce strain on the eyes.

An example of ASE books given out during WWII.
An example of a typical ASE book that a soldier would have been given during WWII.

These Army Services Edition (ASE) books began reaching the front in the middle of 1943. There was one crate of books per every 150 soldiers and sailors, and the program eventually shipped 155,000 crates every month, according to The Atlantic. In the end, 122,951,031 copies of 1322 ASE titles were printed and distributed to soldiers around the globe.

An advisory committee curated an enormous selection for the program. There were titles ranging from literary classics like Moby Dick, Plato’s Republic, and The Grapes of Wrath to the hard-boiled detective work of Raymond Chandler and the comic book adventures of Superman. There were also poetry and history books, and titles on U.S. foreign policy. By all accounts, these book crates were some of the most welcome sights during the brutal conflict, with one GI proclaiming that paperbacks were “as popular as pin-up girls.”

The soldiers' love of books didn't just stop once the war was over; as Molly Guptill Manning, author of When Books Went to War, explained to Smithsonian, the ASE program forever changed American reading habits:

"The average WWII conscript had an 11th-grade education and did not read books. During the war, sometimes out of sheer desperation for something to do, the men would pick up books because they were the only entertainment around. Many service members came home with a love of books. Thanks to the popularity of the ASEs, publishers started to release cheap paperback editions for civilians, so veterans returned to a flourishing paperback trade."

The ASE provided the young men and women with books they never would have touched before, and in some cases it helped turn previously obscure authors into icons. Before the conflict, a title like The Great Gatsby garnered a fairly tepid critical reaction and even less inspiring sales, but when it was included in the ASE line, it blossomed. While Scribners printed a mere 25,000 copies of the novel from 1925 to 1942, around 155,000 ASE copies were shipped to soldiers during the war, according to a Library of Congress report by Matthew J. Bruccoli, an expert on F. Scott Fitzgerald. This new generation of readers helped revive the work, and it's been a staple of high school reading curriculums ever since.

The years after the war shifted the opinion of the paperbacks from cheap entertainment to a format in which the greatest works of literature could be printed. Some within publishing worried that the ASE program would ruin the industry by flooding the civilian market with surplus copies for just pennies, but it instead wound up creating a paperback book market that opened the doors to a whole new audience of readers that would never have been able to afford these books otherwise.

By 1949, paperbacks were officially outselling the more expensive hardcover books for the first time. Americans had come home from war with an appetite for books, and the burgeoning softcover market was the perfect, affordable way to satisfy it.

Soon You'll Be Able to Book a Night Inside the Palace of Versailles

The exterior of the Palace of Versailles
The exterior of the Palace of Versailles
mtnmichelle/iStock via Getty Images

Beginning next spring, interested tourists can say au revoir to more traditional lodging in favor of spending the night inside the Palace of Versailles, as Thrillist reports.

Back in 2015, the palace’s management announced it was looking for an outside partner to convert three of the palace’s buildings into guest accommodations. That outside partner turned out to be Airelles, a luxury hospitality group with three other properties in France.

In 2020, the company will begin accepting bookings for Le Grand Contrôle, a 14-room hotel located in the palace’s south wing. The hotel will also feature a new restaurant from famed French chef Alain Ducasse, the second-most decorated Michelin star chef in the world.

Tourists beware, though: A single night at the company’s other properties generally cost upwards of $500 per night, so a stay at Le Grand Contrôle is unlikely to be cheap. But visitors who want to shell out the money for a room can look forward to an unbeatable location, first-class dining, and the joy of relaxing while telling others to “let them eat cake” (which Marie Antoinette never said, but it's befitting nonetheless).

[h/t Thrillist]

Further Reading: Books About (And By) Theodore Roosevelt

Alexander Lambert // Library of Congress
Alexander Lambert // Library of Congress

If you're enjoying what you're learning on History Vs. Theodore Roosevelt, we suggest checking out these books about—and a few of them by—our 26th president. Make sure to subscribe to the podcast here!

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

The first book in Morris’s trilogy covers TR’s years from birth to the vice presidency.

Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris

The second book in Morris’s trilogy covers TR’s seven years in the White House.

Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

The final book in the trilogy focuses on Roosevelt’s post-presidential years.

Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life by Kathleen Dalton

A fascinating one-volume biography of Roosevelt.

The Wars of the Roosevelts: The Ruthless Rise of America’s Greatest Political Family by William J. Mann

In addition to covering the big three Roosevelts—TR, FDR, and Eleanor—this must-read book features the Roosevelt siblings and cousins, revealing secrets and feuds within this famous family.

Theodore Roosevelt's Ghost: The History and Memory of an American Icon by Michael Cullinane

An analysis of Roosevelt’s legacy.

The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America by Douglas Brinkley

A look at TR’s life from a naturalist perspective.

Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Doomed Quest to Clean up Sin-Loving New York by Richard Zacks

A look at TR’s time as police commissioner of New York.

Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense: The Courtroom Battle to Save His Legacy by Dan Abrams and David Fisher

This book covers when Roosevelt was accused of libel, and took the stand in his own defense.

Guest of Honor: Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and the White House Dinner That Shocked a Nation by Deborah Davis

An account of the lives of Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington, and their relationship—including their dinner, which made history.

Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands: A Young Politician's Quest for Recovery in the American West by Roger L. Di Silvestro

Di Silvestro’s book covers TR’s time as a rancher in the Dakotas, where he retreated after the deaths of his wife and mother and a rough end to his career as an assemblyman.

Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life, and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt by David McCullough

This National Book Award–winning biography takes on TR’s early years.

The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard

An account of Roosevelt’s journey down an uncharted tributary of the Amazon—during which he almost died.

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin

A look at the relationship between Roosevelt and his successor, Taft, a one-time friend who became an enemy.

A Passion to Lead: Theodore Roosevelt in His Own Words by Edited by Laura Ross

Selections from Roosevelt’s writings accompanied by gorgeous photographs.

Hunting Trips of a Ranchman by Theodore Roosevelt

Roosevelt on hunting.

Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail by Theodore Roosevelt

Roosevelt on his time as a rancher in the Dakotas.

Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography by Theodore Roosevelt

This book, published in 1913, is Roosevelt's life in his own words.

Theodore Roosevelt: Letters and Speeches

This book features four famous speeches and more than 350 letters written by TR to family, friends, and diplomats between 1881 and 1919.

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