NEW YORK – An effort is underway to revive the World War II tradition of giving books away to soldiers.
Between 1943 and 1947, more than 123 million of the pocket-sized, horizontally formatted books were donated to armed forces stationed overseas. Now, the 32-year-old head of a literacy foundation in Washington is trying to bring back the practice for today's troops.
"It was the greatest giveaway of fiction and nonfiction books the world has ever seen," said Andrew Carroll, the executive director of the American Poetry and Literacy Project, who is spearheading the effort. "It got the troops reading. It created a whole generation of readers and writers."
An avid collector of the World War II-era American Service Editions, Carroll conceived of the idea to bring them back three years ago — well before Sept. 11 and the war in Afghanistan.
He convinced his paperback publisher, a Simon & Schuster division called Washington Square Press, to produce an ASE of his own book — a collection of letters from soldiers through the years called War Letters.
The publishing house funded the production and distribution of about 10,000 ASE copies.
"It's a terrific tradition and it should be revived," said Rosemary Ahern, director of Washington Square Press. "Putting books in people's hands is what publishing is all about."
Now Carroll is traveling from military base to military base across the country to give those paperbacks away in person.
And Veterans of Foreign Wars has also gotten involved, agreeing to buy 2.5 million copies of War Letters and distribute them to members and friends.
"It's a very nice idea," said World War II veteran George W. Mullen, 75, who runs the VFW headquarters in Pennsylvania. "A little book would take their minds off what they're really doing now, if they have time to read it."
Mullen, a former Navy sailor, said his crew at sea didn't receive the Armed Services Edition books.
"The ship I was on didn't have any library and we didn't have much chance to read," he said.
But he remembers seeing men toting small Bibles or diaries for jotting down their thoughts.
"When they thought they were in harm's way, they would read a little bit," Mullen said. "There wasn't much to do other than save your life so you could get home."
Carroll's road trip has led him to bases in Texas, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. He also plans to hit Philadelphia and New York and continue traveling all summer.
At some bases, he's been greeted by lines of servicemen and women waiting to snap up the little paperbacks, whose 6-1/2-by-4-3/8-inch dimensions make them easily portable.
"It's a great idea," said Army Capt. Dale Smith, 34, who is stationed at Ft. Hood, Texas, and took one of Carroll's books. "It does boost morale."
The paperback distribution of World War II was a massive campaign, with 1,300 titles including everything from literature, poetry and mysteries to biographies and history books. John Steinbeck, William Faulkner and Mary Shelley were among the authors whose works made the rounds.
"They sent them really great books — bestsellers, the classics," said Carroll.
He not only wants to replicate the exact look and size of the original ASEs but also would like to see his initiative sweep the industry like the first one did.
Though he's met with interest from at least one other paperback publisher, he hopes others will join the initiative. It will likely take some persuasion, however, since it involves printing and giving books away for free.
"They've got to get into the spirit of the project," he said. "It's not about promoting the publishing industry or a particular title. It's about handing out free books."
Some veterans have told Carroll that books got them through the war.
"I had one guy tell me, 'The little pocketbook of poetry kept me alive,'" Carroll remembered.
Smith can relate. He relied on books during Desert Storm.
"I had eight months in Saudi, and all I did was read," he said. "It takes your mind off where you're at. It's wonderful."