Shut not your doors to me, proud libraries,
For that which was lacking among you all, yet needed most, I bring;
A book I have made for your dear sake, O soldiers,
And for you, O soul of man, and you, love of comrades;
The words of my book nothing, the life of it everything;
A book separate, not link’d with the rest, nor felt by the intellect;
But you will feel every word, O Libertad! arm’d Libertad!
It should pass by the intellect to swim the sea, the air,
With joy with you, O soul of man.*

Thus Walt Whitman stirred by the belief that his Drum-Taps, published in 1865 represented a contribution to the war effort. No doubt we could find an illustration of a crusader studying The Bible or an opponent immersed in the Koran. Was Homer motivated by a desire to encourage the troops besieging Troy? Books and war have been tied up for ever. It’s only in the 20th century though that society got around to recognizing this and organizing the provision of books for soldiers. Here’s a American poster from World War I, soliciting donations for libraries for soldiers. The British War Library solicited donations of used books and then began to buy new books for troops. It ended up distributing more than six million books, concentrating in the end on wounded soldiers. Publishers supplied books for Camp Libraries: Oxford University Press supplied for example four and a half million New Testaments for active troops, though the main effort was directed at exciting interest among the public so that people would buy books and send them to soldiers.

In World War II we saw the organized provision of books to soldiers. On 10 December 2014 NPR’s Morning Edition featured an interview with Molly Guptill Manning, author of When Books Went to War. What caught my attention was the assertion, when talking about the series of miniature books called Armed Services Editions, that “each book would probably withstand about six readings before it would start to fall into pieces”. I suppose this is a way of saying that they were printed on paper with a high groundwood content and perfect bound. But we all know, I think, that such a book will withstand more than six readings before falling apart. Of course battlefield conditions lead to harsher handling. In spite of their advertised evanescence, a complete set of Armed Services Editions can be found at the Library of Congress. This website includes a list of the books published in the series. Armed Services Editions were published from 1943 to 1947, and 123 million copies of over 1300 titles were distributed. The NPR piece says they were small to fit in a pocket, slightly larger than a smartphone, about 3⅞” x 5½”. The books were printed two-up on Reader’s Digest and similar presses, so they’d be half of digest size, though it seems that some were printed larger. They were usually landscape format, bound on the shorter dimension. The Wikipedia article shows a picture of one copy showing Huckleberry Finn on top of Country lawyer, waiting to be cut apart and trimmed. Just how much work went into matching up books of similar page count is not disclosed, but obviously, given the format, the books had to be specially reset for the series. A comprehensive, bibliographical account of the program can be found here.

Here’s a review of Ms Manning’s book from The Wall Street Journal.

UnknownDuring World War II restrictions were placed on publishers. In Britain publishers were put onto paper rationing (stricter than in USA) and there were rules governing how much of the page had to be covered with type (i.e. it became illegal to have over-generous margins). The percentage of type-area to the page-area (untrimmed) was not be less than 58 per cent and there were maximum permissable type sizes and leading; e.g. a demy octavo book could have type no larger than 11 point, with 1 point leading. A small book (smaller than crown ocatvo, 7-1/2″ by 5″) had to have type no larger than 11 pt, with no leading. Chapters were not allowed to start a new page, leaving blank paper on the preceding page. Type metal even became scarce (and remember almost all book printing was letterpress in those days). I suspect that we never relinquished the 58% coverage standard after 1945 as we recognized that saving paper saved money as well as helping the war effort. Certainly page margins continue to shrink. Nobody in the commercial publishing trade has de luxe margins nowadays. Cynically one has to note that war tends to be good for book publishers: rationing leads to restrictions in supply, as too of course did bombing (covered by some insurance), and publishers were able to sell pretty much everything they had while seeing the destruction of huge quantities of unsaleable stock!

Books continue to be a part of our military effort. Don’t let us forget Len Edgerly’s charity E-books for troops which has now closed down — a sign we might hope of a end to on-going warfare (at least large-scale) involving US troops.


* from Walt Whitman: Drum-Taps, to be republished for the first time in 150 years by New York Review Books on 7 April. The poems in Drum-Taps tended to be revised by Whitman and incorporated in various editions of Leaves of Grass.