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War and Books


Yesterday I mentioned the rare copy of Green Light that I found in a garage sale. The disclaimer on the jacket about compliance with wartime regulations on publication provokes a little research on the subject. According to an article in The Atlantic, during WW2, Council of Books in Wartime circulated an audacious proposal, which proposed to print and sell millions of books to the army, for just 6 cents a volume. The plan, breath-taking in its ambition, was sure to engender skepticism among publishers asked to donate the rights to some of their most valuable property. The plan calls for massive production of something that resembles the magazine format instead of the hardcovers that had prevailed during that time. The Council decided to use the magazine presses, printing two copies on each page, and then slicing the book in half perpendicular to the binding. The result was a book wider than it was tall, featuring two columns of texts for easier reading in low light.

Publishers took an audacious gamble to see the armed forces cheap paperbacks, shipped to units scattered around the world. Instead of printing only the books soldiers and sailors actually wanted to read, though, publishers decided to send them the best they had to offer. Over the four years between 1942 and 1946, American publishers gave away over 120 million copies of their most valuable titles. Instead of ruining the business as they initially feared, publishers have created a generation of new readers and democratized the pleasures of reading, making literature, poetry, and history available to all, because serious (high-brow literature) books were find to find before the war. Dedicated readers were also ones who were well off and could afford these books on mail catalog. There was another, less-reputable class of books, though, that enjoyed broader distribution.

3 Responses

  1. Love that! Generosity actually insured their continued success…

  2. CJ Denis’ books were published in trench size editions and sent to Australian soldiers fighting in WW1.

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