Sunday, September 4, 2011

What G.I. Joe Read

As I recently noted, John Hench's excellent study of Books as Weapons, on the US harnessing of publishing for political purposes in the World War II era, just won a well-deserved prize for best book of the year from the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing (SHARP).

Most of us were previously unaware of this colossal effort, particularly as it concerned the attempt to promote American books among the European population. More of us may have come across the cheap editions produced for US soldiers. Still, as even these latter are probably unfamiliar to the average reader, I thought it might be useful to present one of them here. The images are no substitute for the object itself, but they, along with John's excellent research, help to give some impression of what the books were actually like.

As the book explains, the first concerted attempt to provide US soldiers with reading material proved unsuccessful. The "Victory Book Campaigns," a joint effort of the USO, Red Cross, and American Library Association, failed because they "depended on the voluntary contribution of used books by civilians at home," an approach that "proved to be both inefficient and ineffective." (pp. 51, 84). As many a modern librarian or organizer could have told them: volunteer efforts can be unwieldy, the more so when it comes to book donations, which tend to attract precisely the sorts of things that neither donor nor recipient really wants. The weight and wide variations in the size and shape of the books also complicated the logistics of what was to have been a massive undertaking.

The Council on Books in Wartime (CBW), a collaboration among trade book publishers, librarians, and booksellers, therefore decided to make its own selections and produce its own editions, which could be sold to the military. The result was the spectacularly successful Armed Services Editions (ASE). The effort was as noteworthy for its approach and production methods as its results. It was prescient in that it took as its model the still-young paperback revolution and sought to take advantage of the distinctive characteristics of the wartime economy.

Standardization and a creative approach to design proved to be as important as the content:
In contrast to the widely differing sizes and formats of the Victory Campaign, the ASEs were lightweight, mostly oblong paperbacks, printed ‘four up’ and then thrice guillotined to create four books with the series’ characteristic, nonstandard orientation. They were printed on roll-fed rotary presses used in peacetime for magazines and catalogs, which had capacity in excess of the demands of civilian life. They appeared in two different trim sizes—6 ½ by 4 ½ inches (i.e. half the size of a magazine like Popular Mechanics) and 5 ½ x 3 ½ inches (i.e. half the size of a Reader’s Digest and similar periodicals)—which made packing and shipping comparatively easy. The text was printed in two columns on these oblong pages, a design, it was claimed, that did not exhibit the crowded effect that vertical two-column pages displayed. It also held the lines to legibly short lengths. These various design and technical innovations made the production and distribution of the ASEs feasible, even little short of miraculous. (p. 52)
ASE produced 122,951,031 copies of 1,322 titles from 1943 through 1947.

It so happens that I had one such edition in my own library, an item that I picked up for a few cents a good many years ago (I believe: at the League of Women Voters' book sale here in Amherst). It's by Ernie Pyle, the most famous US combat journalist of World War II. Killed by a sniper in 1945, Pyle, as the Indiana University School of Journalism puts it, was "An early "embedded journalist," who "worked alongside the troops, experiencing much of what they did, placing himself in danger as they did. His columns captured the scene and his reporting humanized the war for many of his readers." Pyle produced two bestselling collections of his writing, Here is Your War (1943) and Brave Men (1944-45), which were also issued together under the title, G.I. Joe.

The ASE edition of Here is Your War is in the larger of the two formats:

inside cover
title page
first page, showing the unusual double-column horizontal orientation
back inside cover, with list of selected other titles in the series
back cover
The success of the program was measured not only in copies, but also in consequences. As John summarizes:
In setting up the ASEs, council members were confident that the series would contribute to the ‘mass reading of books in the world to come.’ They were right. Historians have generally credited the ASEs with introducing books to the GIs who had read little before the war, for helping fuel the paperback boom in the postwar years, and for creating a new pool of customers. (p. 53)

Not bad for an improvised response to a national emergency. One wonders what equivalent efforts could be undertaken today to enrich the lives of our soldiers and better equip them for the return to the United States and, eventually, civilian life in the age of the information economy.

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