I’ve spent a good part of my life collecting, researching and generally championing the Services Editions, issued to the British Armed Forces during the Second World War. I’ve always felt that they have been unjustly neglected, particularly in comparison with the American Armed Services Editions, which are well known, well-researched and widely collected, including a full collection in the Library of Congress.
That contrast is heightened by a fascinating new book on the US editions, ‘When books went to war’. Amongst other articles and research, there have already been at least two quite significant books published on the Armed Services Editions. The war was barely over before ‘A history of the Council on Books in Wartime’ was published in 1946 (written by Robert O. Ballou from a draft by Irene Rakosky). Then forty years after the launch of the series, an event to celebrate them was held at the Library of Congress in 1983 and a selection of papers published the following year as ‘Books in Action’, edited by John Y. Cole.
The first of these works is referenced extensively in Molly Guptill Manning’s new book, while the second is surprisingly neglected. The major new resource she has unearthed and used though is a wide variety of letters written by servicemen to authors and to the Council on Books in Wartime. These are what make the book, transforming it from a dry bibliographical history or reference book to a vibrant and uplifting story of triumph and adversity – at times almost an emotional read. It’s clear that many soldiers appreciated the books enormously, even to the extent that they transformed the lives of some servicemen, opening their eyes to a wider world and to new post-war possibilities. The narrative of the book is also helped by setting it in the context of the Nazi book-burnings, contrasting American freedom and liberality with Nazi censorship and destruction.
It’s a very entertaining read and I’d recommend it to a much wider audience than most books about books, which are usually pretty dry and specialist. My one real reservation is, perhaps not surprisingly, that it again fails to give due credit to the UK Services Editions. As usual, they’re mostly ignored, but in one section on the British publishing industry in wartime, the author claims that ‘book shortages … rendered distribution of free reading material to members of the Royal Army and Navy impossible’. British troops are said to have gaped at the crates of Armed Services Editions (ASEs) supplied to American forces, marvelling at how well taken care of they were. ‘Many British soldiers were left wondering: Why didn’t their government care for their morale needs by supplying paperback books?’
The answer of course is that the British Government did supply paperback books. Not only did they supply around 500 different titles as Services Editions, but they were ahead of the Americans in doing so. It seems likely that the ASEs were at least in part inspired by the British experiences in this area, although there is no acknowledgement of this. The Penguin Forces Book Club issued a series of 120 paperbacks between October 1942 and September 1943 (on a subscription basis for army units, but effectively free to servicemen) and the main programme of Services Editions with wide distribution started in July 1943. The first ASEs did not appear until September of the same year.
Of course it’s possible that ASEs reached some locations that British Services Editions never got to, leading to admiration or jealousy from the British forces. And the Americans certainly had a greater range of titles and longer print runs, meaning the books are much easier to find today, but they were not the first. They may even have been behind the Germans too, who published ‘Feldpostaugaben’, although on a slightly different basis, and I’m not sure over what period. And the Swiss, who were not even fighting in the war, issued a series of paperbacks described as Soldaten-Bücherei, or Soldiers’ Library, at least as early as 1939.
Of course all of this is just my personal hobbyhorse. It will be a minor or irrelevant point for most people reading the book and I doubt it will detract at all from their enjoyment of it. In the end this is a story, more than a bibliographical work, and as a story it’s well written and enjoyable. I hope many more people will enjoy it.