BALLINGER, Texas (AP) — Consider the lowly paperback, have you ever wondered where they came from?
The Abilene Reporter-News reports they aren't that lowly to a soldier, however. They were a tonic for those desperate for something in their field pack that didn't go boom, but still took the mind elsewhere.
In World War II, that was the idea behind the Armed Services Editions. There have been softcover books wrapped with paper since the 15th century, and in the 19th century penny dreadfuls — so named for their low price and even lower standards — became all the rage with the London masses.
Even in the United States, dime novels popularized the western frontier during the Civil War and in the years after. Many of the legends of the Old West got their start in mass-market publications whose editions were churned out nearly as quick as someone could write them, thanks to mechanized printing presses.
But according to an article in the Library of Congress blog by Erin Allen, a U.S. Army librarian named Ray Trautman and Army graphic arts specialist H. Stanley Thompson in 1942 had an idea to supply overseas troops with inexpensive paperback book reprints. People in the trade viewed books in this time as "weapons in the war of ideas," an especially potent response to prominent newsreel footage of Nazis setting fire to towers of books.
Partnering with a nonprofit group of publishers, booksellers and librarians called the Council on Books in Wartime, they turned Trautman and Thompson's idea brought more than 1,300 unabridged titles to American troops during the war. According to Caitlin Newman at HistoryNet.com, publishers printed 123 million books during this time.
They split the difference when it came to selected titles. Sometimes it was "The Adventures of Superman," sometimes it was "Moby Dick." The books were printed on flimsy paper with a slightly tougher cover, all cut to the same dimension to fit in fatigue pants pockets or be stuffed under a helmet.
The books were meant to be passed around, to help fill the hours of interminable boredom that bookended the moments of sheer terror familiar to combat. But their ephemeral nature has also meant that few have survived.
So when Fred Schwake saw some at an estate sale a couple years ago, he immediately realized the rarity of what he had found.
"I love books, and World War II history," he said. "I had heard of these books somewhere, but I had never seen them on the secondary market. I bought them because I don't know if I'll ever see them again."
Schwake owns the eclectic One of a Kind Unique Antiques. He's got lots of signs, pictures, secondhand furniture, a groovy Beatles' Yellow Submarine lava lamp and a zillion other things.
"From what I've read, they were really, really popular," Schwake said. "People swapped them, traded them, passed them around.
"I think through that fashion, a lot of them got worn-out. They probably got so flimsy they couldn't use them anymore, it's probably why hardly any have survived."
But the collection of 18 or so paperbacks, almost all dating between 1943 and 1947, is a bit of history that he doesn't feel like giving up.
"People today don't realize, when the veterans came back at the end of World War II, they had become accustomed to these books," he said.
Indeed, part of the motivation for creating the program, at least on the side of the publishers, was to get books into the hands of men who otherwise never would pick up the reading habit. It was a gamble that paid off, in fact launching an entire industry thanks to that paperback format.
"It's popular the world over because I have a friend who I go visit in France every year," Schwake said. "She has over 2,000 books, and probably half of those are paperbacks. So, I guess it's a worldwide medium."
One book was called "Cartridge Carnival," a western by William Cold MacDonald dated 1945, another was "Marta of Muscovny" by Phil Stong, also from 1945. But online you can see copies of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" or John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath."
Allen wrote in her essay how one G.I. told a reporter from the Saturday Evening Post that the books were as popular as pinup girls.
Leo Rosten's "The Education of Hyman Kaplan," was the first title in the series. A collection of funny stories, Rosten once received a letter from an appreciative soldier.
I want to thank you profoundly, for myself and more important, for the men here in this godforsaken part of the globe. . Last week we received your book on Mr. Kaplan. . As an experiment, I read it one night at the campfire. The men howled. Now they demand I only read one Kaplan story a night: A ration on pleasure."
Newman described how a colonel, thinking his men had finally gone off the deep end during a German bombardment somewhere in Belgium heard his men belly-laughing during the shelling. He found them in a fox hole, guffawing as one of them read aloud between blasts from "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn".
"Reading takes the mind away from the experiences we have that are so different from the environment we left and keeps you from concentrating on all the discomforts we have, always looking for things that annoy you, and becoming a slave to self-pity," wrote one corporal in a thank you to the Council on Books in Wartime.
That they occupied such a place in the hearts of so many is what Schwake finds so valuable about these books.
"They're important to me, and they are an important part of our history," he said. "They helped change how books are published after the war.
Information from: Abilene Reporter-News, http://www.reporternews.com