Anybody who collects early Penguins knows two things:
- the crime titles (in green covers) are rarer than the standard novels (in orange covers).
- The wartime editions, particularly those published from 1942 onwards, up to the end of the war, are much rarer than both earlier and later editions
Put those two things together and a third thing becomes obvious – wartime crime titles are very rare.
Rarity alone doesn’t make books valuable, but the combination of rarity and high demand does. And since there are a surprising number of people interested in early Penguins, often trying to collect the first 1000 in first printings, demand for the wartime crime titles is high, and so are prices.
Change was gradual at the start of the war, for paperbacks as for many other things, and early wartime Penguins from late 1939 and much of 1940 are not too difficult to find. But with the Battle of Britain in mid-1940 and the introduction of paper rationing around the same time, wartime conditions were really starting to bite by the end of the year. From about Penguin volume 300 onwards, the books start to get thinner and start to become much rarer. Volumes 301 to 304, all crime titles published at the end of 1940, are really the first of the rarities.
For some reason that I can’t explain, the next three or four crime titles seem to be a little easier to find, but from then on there’s no let up. The twenty-seven crime Penguins numbered between 350 and 500 and roughly published between mid-1942 and mid-1945, are unremittingly difficult to find, often expensive to buy and often in very poor condition.
Penguins from this period were printed to the ‘War Economy Standard’ on very poor quality paper. They are usually very thin, with small type and small margins to cram as much as possible onto the minimum amount of paper. They fall apart very easily and would not last long with repeated use. The popularity of crime titles at the time, and the shortage of books, meant that many of them were passed around, read and re-read and would naturally have disintegrated. Those that survived at all, usually survived in poor condition. Even reprints from this period are scarce.
Many of the books are of dubious quality. Penguin was not the leading UK publisher of crime novels at the time, and Collins probably had the pick of the best writers. Writers such as Eric Bennett, Stuart Martin, Lewis Robinson and Richard Keverne didn’t leave much of a collective mark on the history of crime writing. But there was still room in this group for two titles by Margery Allingham, three by Ngaio Marsh, and one from Mignon Eberhart, amongst writers whose reputations have stood the test of time.
There are of course differences of opinion about which are the rarest books. Some say ‘Panic Party’ by Anthony Berkeley (volume 402), but there’s a good case to be made also for the two Georgette Heyer titles – ‘The unfinished clue’ (volume 428) and ‘Why shoot a butler?’ (volume 429). Two earlier titles, ‘The general goes too far’ by Lewis Robinson and ‘William Cook – Antique dealer’ by Richard Keverne (volume 383 and 384) are certainly very rare as well, as are others from the same period.
But then others say that the rarest of all is not even a crime Penguin, but is the one Biggles book to be published by Penguin – volume 348, ‘Biggles flies again’ by W.E. Johns. There’s competition for that one from collectors of Biggles stories as well as Penguin collectors. Good luck if you’re searching for it – but you may need deep pockets as well as luck.
Crime author Cecil Street wrote around 150 crime novels, mostly under the pseudonyms of John Rhode and Miles Burton, between about 1925 and 1960. He was writing in the Golden Age of crime fiction and most of his books were published by the leading crime publisher of the time, the Collins Crime Club. That put him in distinguished company, appearing alongside Agatha Christie and a host of other leading crime writers.
Street’s books are still widely collected today, with some of them still in print. But it’s probably fair to say that his critical reputation has not survived as well as some of his contemporaries. Julian Symons, in his history of crime writing, categorised Street as one of the ‘humdrum’ writers, producing stories that were professionally crafted, but almost more like crossword puzzles than literature. A more recent book by Curtis Evans, ‘Masters of the Humdrum mystery’, tries to redress the balance and restore a bit of his battered reputation.
But his books were certainly popular in their time, and at the time of the Second World War they were exactly the kind of book that was wanted for the Services. As Collins produced a long series of paperback Services Editions including many of their Crime Club titles, Rhode and Burton titles inevitably featured strongly.
The series started in 1943 with numbering starting from c201, although numbers were only given retrospectively to the first 16 titles. So the 17th volume, ‘Murder at Lilac Cottage’ by John Rhode was possibly the first one to actually carry a series number, c217. I can’t be sure, as I’ve never seen this in first printing, which would be dated 1943. The only copies I’ve seen, all say ‘Services Edition 1946’ in the printing history, with no mention of the earlier printing. I live in hope of coming across an edition that says ‘Services Edition 1943’ one day. That would also be the paperback 1st printing as it appeared as a standard White Circle paperback only in March 1944.
Two more Street novels were issued in early 1944 – ‘Murder M.D.’ by Miles Burton as volume c248 and ‘Men die at Cyprus Lodge’ by John Rhode as c251. Both also exist as reprints dated 1946, with no indication of the earlier printing, but first printings should say ‘Services Edition 1944’. Inevitably, most of the copies that survive are the later 1946 printing, and first printings are scarce. Again the first printing Services Editions are also the first paperback printings. In fact so far as I know that’s the case for all the Rhode / Burton editions. They were all novels that had been first published in hardback only a year or two earlier, and had not previously appeared in paperback. It was often several years later before paperback editions appeared for non-Services customers.
The two 1944 editions were followed by six in 1945, and so far as I know, none of these were reprinted, so all copies say ‘Services Edition 1945’. ‘Four ply yarn’ by Miles Burton and ‘Death invades the meeting’ by John Rhode appeared early in the year as c291 and c292, then ‘Dead stop’ by Burton as c304, and two John Rhodes – ‘Dead on the track’ and ‘Night exercise’ as c311 and c312. ‘Night exercise’ was the only one of the Rhode Services Editions not to feature Dr. Priestley as the detective. A final Miles Burton novel, ‘The three corpse trick’ was published at the end of 1945 as c348.
Overall then nine of Street’s novels appeared in the series, more than those of any other crime writer. Even Agatha Christie only had eight.
As India celebrates the 70th anniversary of its independence, here’s a short look back at one little known aspect of those last pre-independence days – its Wild West paperbacks. I’ve written before about the Collins paperbacks published in India during the war and in the years immediately afterwards. They’re now generally very difficult to find, although I’m not sure there’s anybody other than myself searching for them. But if most of them are difficult to find, the Wild West paperbacks seem to be almost impossible.
Judging by the lists of titles in the other books I have, Collins published over 40 westerns in paperback in India in the 1940s, most of them as White Circle paperbacks and a few in their general series. There seem to have been a further 12 westerns in the series of Services Editions, printed specially for the British forces in India and SEAC, and at least three more published by Collins in what was then Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. That’s over 50 different books, that would have been printed in large quantities – I’d have thought at least 10,000 copies of each book and possibly several times as many. In total surely at least half a million books. Yet in thirty years or so of searching, I had never seen a single copy of any of them.
There are reasons of course. They were printed on poor quality paper and seen as disposable items. Many would have been sold to British expatriates or British troops in India and would not have been thought worth transporting home. The westerns may have survived less well than the crime stories and other novels, because they were more avidly read and passed around, or perhaps because they were seen as more disposable. And even if copies have survived in India, they’re inevitably difficult to track down from Britain now. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to search for them on the ground and find they’re not as rare as I think.
But this week I finally found one. It’s in appalling condition, worn and dirty with the front cover missing and the spine disintegrating. Even at £5, including postage, it was hardly a bargain. But it’s the first Indian Wild West paperback from Collins that I have ever seen. A small piece of history has been preserved.
Not a pretty sight, but possibly unique
And it follows an earlier success, just over a year ago, in finding a western paperback from Ceylon, this one in much better condition. So the search is not impossible after all. There are westerns out there waiting to be found. I’d love to hear of others.
‘Printers’ Pie’ had started in the early years of the twentieth century as a way to raise funds for a Printers’ charity. It continued until at least 1918, sometimes twice a year, with Christmas issues called ‘Winter’s Pie’, but stopped publication soon after. There may have been one or two publications in the 1920s called the ‘Sketchbook and Printers’ Pie’, but information is scarce.
In 1935 it was revived (see this earlier blog post) to raise money for the King George’s Jubilee Trust and then for other charities, now using the titles ‘Christmas Pie’ and ‘Summer Pie’. So far as I can tell the final issue in this series, published by Odhams, was in 1939.
But then after a gap of three or four years, it appeared again in 1943 under the original title, this time published by Hutchinson. The publication marked Walter Hutchinson becoming Festival President of the Printers’ Pension, Almshouse and Orphan Asylum Corporation, the original charity for which ‘Printers’ Pie’ had been created, and was to raise funds for them.
It was now in a small paperback format, and selling for the relatively high price of 2s 6d. Pre-war issues had sold for 6d and in 1943 most paperbacks were selling for around 9d. But as well as being for charity, this was on unusually good quality paper for a wartime publication, featured a colour cover and several pages of glossy photographs in two sections. There were stories by H.E. Bates, Howard Spring, L.A.G. Strong and James Hilton among others.
It was followed by ‘Christmas Pie’ at the end of 1943 in a similar format, again selling for 2s 6d. This time there was an appeal for donations to the same Printers’ charity, but no direct mention that the proceeds or profits from the publication would go to the charity. Most issues from then onwards contained no mention of being for charity, but on the other hand the price came down to 1s 6d. The exceptions were the Spring Pies for 1945 and 1946, with the price raised to 2 shillings and profits going first to the Bookbinders’ Cottage Homes and Pensions Society, and then to Toc H.
The format instead seemed just to be adopted by Hutchinson as part of their series of Hutchinson Pocket Specials. From Autumn 1944, there were more or less regular issues five times a year, titled as Spring Pie, Summer Pie, Autumn Pie, Winter Pie and Christmas Pie, published roughly in March, June, September, November and December.
Each issue had a colour portrait of a girl on the cover and inside a mix of articles, short stories, cartoons and photographs. mostly in a light-hearted tone. The style feels very similar to ‘Lilliput’, then a popular monthly magazine.
In April 1946 there was an extra issue called Pie’s Film Book, with Vivien Leigh on the cover as Cleopatra, from one of the big films of the year. It was printed entirely on glossy paper, lavishly illustrated with black and white photos of film stars, and selling at two shillings. Pie’s Film Book No. 2 appeared the following year in similar format, with Margaret Lockwood on the cover, but that seems to have been the end of this venture.
There were other attempts to modernise the format. Colour appeared internally for the first time in the Christmas 1947 issue, with four reproductions of Dutch paintings and in 1948 many of the black and white photographs were replaced by colour illustrations of various kinds. But perhaps it was still not modern enough for the post-war world. The Summer and Christmas issues of 1948 experimented with some discreet nudity, but it was too late or too desperate.
So far as I know, the 1948 Christmas issue was the last until it reappeared in a slightly larger format and at the reduced price of one shilling in December 1949 as ‘Winter Pie’. The editor is now shown as Barbara Vise and the cover illustration is by (presumably related) Jenetta Vise. Inside there’s no longer any colour, but the layout looks less cramped. The content though is less than riveting, featuring articles such as ‘Why I like going to the cinema’ by the Bishop of London, alongside articles on suits of armour and portrait miniatures.
It was followed by ‘Spring Pie’ in April 1950 in a similar format, although this time with a centrefold featuring colour photographs of pottery and porcelain. But then this too seems to have died.
After that, Hutchinson seem to have given up any ambitions to continue the series. Both the ‘Pie’ title and the aim of raising money for good causes seem to have passed back to Odhams, the publisher of the pre-war issues. They published at least one more issue in 1952 in the larger pre-war format, as ‘Summer Pie, in aid of the National Advertising Benevolent Society. That may well have been the last of the Pies.
Almost all Services Editions are paperbacks, mostly very thin, cheap paperbacks on poor quality wartime paper. Apart from the need to reduce costs in wartime, there was also the practical matter of fitting into a battledress pocket.
So what are we to make of the Harrap Services Editions, a hardback series issued towards the end of the war? These are not only hardbacks, but some of them very substantial books, certainly not pocket size.
Of course there were hardback books in Service libraries throughout the war. Many of the early books were donated by the public and came in all shapes and sizes, as well as being on all manner of topics, many of them of little interest to their intended readers. On the other hand it was precisely because many of the donated books were unsuitable, that the new series of paperback Services Editions were launched in 1943.
Those paperbacks were a huge success and were so widely read and passed around that many of them simply disintegrated, one of the factors making them so scarce today. Some units developed their own solutions, providing homemade hard bindings to make them last a little longer. But perhaps as the war moved towards an end in 1945, it became clear that there was a need for something more durable.
Did the armed forces commission a series of hardbacks from Harrap, or was it an initiative from the publisher? By 1945 the dominance of the two long series of paperback Services Editions, from Collins and from Guild Books, was coming to an end. Several other publishers were starting to produce Services Editions, presumably under some sort of contract with the Services that at least enabled them to access the necessary paper ration. But I suspect individual publishers still had a fair amount of discretion over exactly what they published as Services Editions.
In the case of Harrap, all they seem to have done is take some of the books that they were publishing anyway and stamp Services Edition on the front cover. There is nothing in the printing history that suggests a specific printing for the services. The only evidence that they are Services Editions at all is that stamp on the front board. Nor is there any evidence that they were a series in the normal sense. They come in all shapes and sizes and all types of book. The five examples I have come across include two spy novels by Helen MacInnes, an oilfield novel by Robert Sturgis, the semi-fictionalised account of life in Thailand that later formed the basis for the musical ‘The King and I’, and a biography of General Allenby, a military leader. Are there many others?
Four of these five books were printed in 1945, and the fifth in 1946. Judging by the scarcity of the books today, the numbers printed (or the numbers of those printed that were stamped “Services Edition”) must have been small. Almost all Services Editions are now difficult to find, even those paperbacks printed in editions of 50,000 copies. But while it’s relatively easy to make 50,000 poor quality paperbacks disappear, that seems more difficult with hardbacks. If even 5,000 copies of each book were printed, you might expect several hundred to have survived. But if they have, I don’t know where they are.
Two of the copies I have show clear evidence of Services use. One other has the half-title torn out, often seen with Services Editions, presumably to remove evidence of Services ownership. So unlike some later Services Editions, they do at least seem to have reached their intended market.
I’d love to hear from anyone who knows anything more about these unusual and rather surprising books.
By the time war broke out in 1939, the Collins White Circle series was well established as a serious competitor to Penguin, particularly in the area of genre fiction – crime, mystery, westerns and romantic novels. The Crime Club section of the series had published around 80 titles and the Westerns were up to 30 or more. Titles continued to be added throughout 1940 and 1941, but gradually paper rationing started to bite. Books had to meet the War Economy standard and the flow of new titles slowed to a trickle.
A paper quota was available though for the paperback Services Editions, and this was one area where Penguin had got it wrong, launching the misconceived ‘Forces Book Club’ and then withdrawing from the market. It was an opportunity for Collins to make an impression, and their product was in some ways ideal for it. Romantic fiction was not going to work, for what were then almost exclusively male armed forces, but the other categories in their White Circle series could carry straight across. Crime novels and Westerns were just what the Services wanted.
White Circle Westerns in standard format and in Services Edition
Over the period from 1943 to 1946 the Collins series of Services Editions published 164 titles, including at least 33 Westerns, and probably 36. I don’t know exactly how many because I have no idea of the titles of the books numbered c327, c328 and c330. If anyone does know, or even better has a copy of any of these books, I’d be delighted to hear from them. The other books with similar numbers are Westerns, so it seems likely that these are too, but I can’t be sure.
Certainly the series started with eight Westerns in the first sixteen titles. See my post on the early Collins Services Editions for more detail. It’s enough for now to say that those first eight Westerns have almost disappeared without trace. In over 25 years of searching for them, I have found only one in first printing and two others in reprints.
The next batch through to the end of 1944 is not much better. I have found copies of just four of the twelve books, but I do at least know the titles of the others, although not their series numbers. Any evidence of the books below in Services Editions would be welcome.
|Curran, Tex||Riding fool|
|Dawson, Peter||Time to ride|
|Ermine, Will||Watchdog of Thunder River|
|Lee, Ranger||Red shirt|
|Lee, Ranger||The silver train|
|Robertson, F. C.||Rustlers on the loose|
|Robertson, F. C.||Kingdom for a horse|
|Short, Luke||Ride the man down|
That leaves a further thirteen, possibly sixteen, Westerns published in 1945 and 1946. I have copies of seven of them, some of which I’ve seen more than once, so I suppose they’re a little more common, which is what you’d expect, but they’re still frustratingly difficult to find.
That’s true of almost all Services Editions, but Westerns do seem to be particularly rare. It’s true for the smaller number of Westerns in the Guild Books series of Services Editions as well. I’m pretty sure that the Westerns were printed in at least as large quantities as other titles, but they seem to have survived less well. I can only assume that’s because they had more use, they were read more avidly and more often, passed around more or borrowed more often from unit libraries. Services Editions were printed on poor quality paper, and often stored and read in battlefield conditions, and in hot damp climates, so they wouldn’t survive repeated use for long.
Or possibly Westerns were just seen as more disposable, and have continued to be seen in that way. When service libraries were being cleared out, were Westerns more likely to be thrown away? If they survived that clear-out and were accepted into somebody’s home, were they still more likely to end up in the bin than other types of fiction? If they got as far as a second-hand bookshop, would bookdealers have considered them worthy of a place on the shelf? Or would they have ended up in a box in a dark corner or have been consigned to a cellar to moulder and die?
Most of the Westerns in the series were written under pseudonyms, and around a third of the books came from a single author, Charles Horace Snow. He contributed books under three different names – four books as Ranger Lee, four as Gary Marshall and three as Wade Smith. Another eight books came from two brothers – four by Frederick Glidden under the name of Luke Short, and four by his brother Jonathan under the name of Peter Dawson.
I don’t think any of them are much read now. Westerns were enormously popular in wartime and in the postwar years, but interest in them seems to have gone down and down. Finding copies of these books, or even any information about them, is a race against time.
Having recently written a post about the Jarrold’s Jackdaw Library, it seems appropriate to follow it up with one about the Toucan novels. The two series seem to go together in several ways. They both came from the Hutchinson group of publishers, and they share a physical similarity, not only with each other, but with almost all the new paperback series launched in those few years after Penguin’s breakthrough. They also share, with each other and with Collins, the use of a white circle as the main title panel.
And of course they both use a bird as their brand and series title. They were far from the only series to do so in the period after the launch of Penguin Books.
Toucans and Jackdaws – birds of a feather
In choosing a Toucan as their brand, Hutchinson may have had one eye on Penguin and on Jackdaw, but they probably had the other eye on Guinness, whose famous toucan had appeared just two years earlier. What would previously have been a rather obscure bird, had been propelled to the centre of media attention by the Guinness advertising campaign.
In reviewing Jackdaw, I asked the question why Hutchinson needed another paperback series in October 1936. At that point they already had the Hutchinson Pocket Library, the Hutchinson Popular Pocket Library and the Crime Book Society series, all launched within the previous 12 months. So it’s even more strange that just 4 months later they launched yet another new series and another new brand. Was there really a market space left for the Toucan Novels when they appeared in February 1937?
I can’t work out whether it was a deliberate strategy not to put all their eggs in one basket, or just a lack of strategic co-ordination within the group.
Other Hutchinson 6d series from 1935 / 1936
Toucan at least showed some evidence of co-ordination, as the books came from several different publishing imprints within the Hutchinson Group. Most of the first group of titles came from Hurst & Blackett, although there were two from Hutchinson itself. Then a group of books from Stanley Paul and another from John Long. But like Jackdaw, and like several other new paperback series in the 1930s, there was then a pause after an initial rush of titles. It took time for the market to adjust to yet another new paperback series, and time for the initial print run to sell out.
After volume 20 appeared in June 1937, there were no new titles for almost a year, then a small group of titles in summer 1938, but it was not until May 1939 that the series really got going again. The main publisher in this second phase was Stanley Paul, although there were also books from Hurst & Blackett and a few from Skeffington & Son.
The covers of the early books were printed in two colours to highlight the Toucan’s yellow beak, and most of the early books were in a purply crimson colour, with a few in green. The group of books from volumes 17 to 20, all published by John Long, are missing the yellow highlighting on the book covers, although it is still there on the dust-wrappers. Was this an economy measure, saving on two colour printing in a place where it would not normally be noticed by the purchaser? Or was it just a mistake?
Front cover and dust-wrapper of volume 17
It turned out, perhaps inadvertently, to be a herald of the future. From around volume 32 onwards, possibly earlier, all or almost all books were printed with yellow covers. This allowed the toucan’s beak to be yellow without the need for two-colour printing, although it did lose some of the earlier impact. A little while later, dust-wrappers were dropped, and then prices started to creep up, with some volumes selling for a while at 7d, before wartime economy measures really started to bite.
An early Toucan in green and a later one in yellow
By mid 1940 it was impossible to continue on anything like the pre-war basis, and the numbered series came to an end with volume 62. A few more books were published during the war, effectively as one-offs, but they had to meet the war economy standard, which meant low paper quality, small fonts and small margins, making the most of the paper rationing that was hitting all publishers. I know of two wartime Toucans at 9d, although there may well be others. Then later, at least three books at 1s 3d, and post-war others at 1s 6d.
The books published in the Toucan series had no great literary pretensions, and few of them are much remembered today. The authors are generally pretty obscure, although there is one Edgar Wallace title and perhaps most significantly, two of the Maigret books by Georges Simenon. Simenon was at that time so little known in Britain that he had to be described on the book cover as ‘The Edgar Wallace of France’.
As a final comment, seven books in the Hutchinson Group series of Services Editions were also referred to as Toucan Novels in a brief mention at the top of the cover. It’s not entirely clear what the point of this was, as there was no other Toucan branding, and only one of the books had previously appeared as a Toucan novel. Indeed three were from a publisher, Rich and Cowan, which had not previously contributed books to the Toucan series. But it’s one of many examples of confusion in branding within the Hutchinson Group at that time.
By March 1944, the Council on Books in Wartime, the body responsible for publishing the US Armed Services Editions, was already starting to think about the need for books in post-war Europe. Not in an entirely disinterested way, of course. This was a project sponsored by the Psychological Warfare Branch, made up of members of the US Army, the Office of War Information and the OSS, a wartime intelligence agency that was the predecessor of the CIA. In the words of the official history of the Council, ‘Books were wanted which would give the people of Europe a picture of what Americans are like and what we had been doing since communications were closed’. Not to put too fine a point on it, this was a propaganda exercise, and one that led to a substantial publishing programme.
The Americans were undoubtedly right though to identify the need for books, and to prepare for it. Within a relatively short time the US, along with the other Allies, found itself directly administering some quite large areas of Europe, and present in much wider areas. Its ambitions were far more than just to keep the peace. It wanted to do what it could to ensure there would never be another European war, and in pursuit of that goal it wanted to spread what it saw as American values of freedom and democracy, and suppress what remained of the philosophy of totalitarianism.
Within the directly administered areas in Germany, Austria and Italy, the US took wide-ranging control of almost all aspects of the media, through the Information Services Branch (ISB). Press and radio were tightly controlled, as were other aspects such as theatre, cinema and even art. But publishing was clearly an important area for the spread of ideas and as well as trying to influence and control the output of local publishers, the Americans issued their own publications, as did the British.
For the British, the series of Guild Books editions, published in Germany and in Austria, were the gentlest form of propaganda. The American equivalent, the ‘Overseas Editions’, were both more political and more explicit in their aim. As John Hench described it in his ‘History of the Book in America’, the books were “intended to reacquaint Europeans with the heritage, history, and fundamental makeup of the USA, plus a picture of our role in the war.”
Overseas Editions were produced by a subsidiary of the Council on Books in Wartime, and shared some of the same production methods and some of the same titles as the Armed Services Editions. But in other respects they were very different and posed particular problems. The most obvious difficulty was the intention to publish in foreign languages. That required translations, which took time, and it also required typesetters competent in those languages, who were in short supply. Plans to publish in both Chinese and Japanese had to be dropped at a late stage.
Finance was also a significant problem, only solved in the end by an offer from Pocket Books to use its credit, in return for having its imprint on the finished books. When this led to further problems though, Pocket Books waived its rights and no imprint appeared.
In shape and size, the books were closer to Pocket Books than the unconventional oblong shape of the Armed Services Edition. In one respect though they differed from both Pocket Books and Armed Services Editions and almost all other American paperbacks of the time. US paperbacks were almost defined by the colourfulness, even brashness of their covers. Yet the Overseas Editions have an extraordinarily restrained standard typographical cover, with just a small logo. Did the Americans decide that brashness would not go down well in a more sober Europe, or was it just inappropriate for the more serious subject matter here?
Most of the books, including the Italian translations, but interestingly not the German ones, carry a short message on the front cover referring to how free publishing had been ‘interrupted by Axis aggression’.
A total of 72 books were published – 22 in English, 22 in French, 23 in German and 5 in Italian. Some of the same titles appear in all four languages, but there’s also some variation. Most of them are unashamedly patriotic works – Stephen Vincent Benét’s ‘America’, Bernard Jaffe’s ‘Men of Science in America’ and Walter Lippmann’s ‘US War aims’ were typical selections. But there was also room for a small number of novels, notably Hemingway’s ‘For whom the bell tolls’ and William Saroyan’s ‘The human comedy’.
Over 3.6 million books were printed, all of them in 1945, with the final shipment in November 1945. The overall cost was $411,000, equivalent to around 11½ cents each, and as the books were sold at retail prices in each market, the project produced a profit for the Government, something that wasn’t in its original objectives. Indeed a note in the books is quite specific that they are published by a non-profit organisation.
The books were widely sold, not only in occupied Europe, but also in North Africa, Syria, Turkey, the Philippines, China and Japan. They’re still relatively easy to find in second hand markets in Europe, in Holland and Belgium as well as in Germany, France and Italy.
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.