CHARLOTTE, N.C., October 3, 2017 ⏤ With the massive popularity of cell phone apps and online social media services, turning the pages of an actual book may soon become obsolete.
It wasn’t so long ago that something called ASEs (Armed Services Editions) changed the printing industry almost as dramatically as the internet has altered our contemporary world.
ASEs were paperback books designed to fit into a soldier’s pocket so they could travel with him no matter where he was stationed.
Though the idea was born centuries earlier, it captured the imagination of American troops in June, 1944, when thousands of young men prepared to invade the beaches of Normandy, France on D-Day. As soldiers boarded their ships, each was issued a small, postcard-sized paperback book.
The titles were a mixture of literary genres, but the compact pocket-sized editions became instant sources of comfort for fighting men to ease their minds of the horrors of battle. In the process, the paperback book industry in the United States literally became an overnight success.
Soldiers began reading their paperback treasures during long deployments, boring periods of inactivity, in foxholes, on ships and almost anywhere, as they searched for ways to pass the time during the lulls that followed battles.
As far back as 1501, the Aldine Press in Venice began printing something called “octavo books.” As the prefix in the name indicates, these pamphlet-style publications usually consisted of eight leaves printed from a single sheet of paper. The purpose of the format was “to be held in the hand and learned by heart … by everyone,” according to Aldus Manutius, the publisher.
Before long, 16th century Europe was inundated with inexpensive, tiny paper books and pamphlets, and by the 1840s, a German publisher was turning out abridged editions of popular books much as “Reader’s Digest Condensed Books” did during the 20th century.
UK-published Penguin Classic novels in particular soon found their way into Woolworth’s stores throughout Great Britain as a fast, easy means of keeping abreast of the important literature of the day.
Despite the popularity of paperbacks in the United Kingdom and throughout Europe, the concept took longer to catch on in the United States.
Books had become a significant contributor to positive troop morale for Americans during World War I, thanks in large part to the establishment of the Army Library Services. It wasn’t until Nazi Germany incorporated book-burning as a strategic means of propaganda and censorship during World War II that the importance of books began to be recognized by America’s military.
The ideal audience for paperback books was created by the sudden intervention of the United States into World War II, and the popularity of paperbacks has not abated since. This sudden, surprising demand for inexpensive, portable books produced an immediate hit when they were made available to GIs.
Bookseller Michael Hackenberg observed then that the U.S. military consisted of “millions of people far from home, who found themselves in a situation where periods of boredom alternated with periods of intense activity.”
It followed naturally that by the time the U.S. entered the war, having a small, literary source of comfort stashed away in their pockets would make all the difference to impressionable young soldiers as they prepared for combat.
By 1943, publisher Malcolm Johnson and graphic artist H. Stanley Thompson collaborated to propose the idea of Armed Services Editions (ASEs) of books which could be distributed to troops during their deployments.
Titles would include everything from the classics to westerns, thrillers, mysteries, humor and even poetry. The books were selected by volunteer groups of literary experts, printed and then sent overseas at regular intervals.
Title selection was only part of the process, however. The size of the books had to be determined. They needed to be, as John Y. Cole of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book stated, “flat, wide and very pocketable.”
The bindings for the pages of the books needed to be stapled rather than glued due to a problem with glue-eating insects in other parts of the world. As a cost-saving factor, many titles were printed two at a time by laying one on top of the other.
It was decided that two sizes would be published. One would approximate the dimensions of a postcard so it could fit into a breast pocket, while a larger one, 6 1/2 by 4 1/2 inches, could be carried in pants pockets. Both versions had a horizontal orientation which gave them the appearance of being a “flip book,” which apparently proved to be more practical in the field.
It’s been observed countless times that circumstances create strange bedfellows. Or, in a related sentiment, that “necessity is the mother of invention.” Whatever the case, who would have thought it would only take a small skirmish like World War II to turn paperback books into a widely accepted household product in the United States for avid readers both here and abroad?
About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.