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"To My Darling Wife Eunice" - The Best Read Army in the World Exhibit at the Grolier Club


"To My Darling Wife Eunice"  - The Best Read Army in the World Exhibit at the Grolier Club 1

Handcrafted boxes always seem at home at a curated exhibition. They have a way of imbuing elevated value to any item stored within. This is even more true if the box is inscribed or otherwise customized. The box here, inscribed “To My Darling Wife Eunice From Your Husband in Epinal, France” hits all the marks. Hand-carved by First Lt. David Womack while he was stationed in Epinal, it was used to treasure newspaper clippings about the work performed by Black American troops fighting for democracy in a racially segregated US Army.

In truth, the printed word, not the woodcarving, is the focus of the exhibition at which I saw Lt. Womack’s box. It was displayed along with the numerous newspapers, magazines and books that made up an outstanding show I saw on Veteran’s Day at the Grolier Club called, “The Best-Read Army in the World: The Power of the Written Word in World War II.” The show runs through December 30th. If you’re in New York, you should check it out. The Grolier Club is a private bibliophilic club founded in the 19th century that hosts free exhibitions that "treat books and prints as objects worthy of display, on a par with painting and sculpture."

“The Best-Read Army” showcases some of the 123 million paperbacks, mostly unabridged “Armed Services Editions” (ASE) printed on super-thin paper and designed to fit in a pocket, and 1 billion junior-sized periodicals, distributed to the US troops in the war. As the exhibit notes, “During a time of rampant propaganda, censorship and Nazi book bans in Europe, the United States military sent troops into battle armed not only with weapons, but with ideas.” The material ranged from the classic to the populist, and from the mundane to the controversial. Bored, lonely, homesick and scared soldiers found pleasure in reading during their tours - and kept their reading habit, “revolutionizing the book and magazine industries,” according to the show.

I found the description of the mechanics of the ASE volumes fascinating. Although over 18 million books were donated to the troops via the Victory Book Campaign, most of them were large, hardcover books that ended up in the hands of stationery troops like convalescing and shipbound soldiers and POWs. Mobile combat troops needed truly pocket-sized volumes. Ray Trautman, the Army Chief Librarian, took the blank pages of Omnibook magazine and devised a double-printing of two mini paperbacks at the same time, each with the unique ASE format of two columns of text, a horizontal format and stapled binding. The strict page limit forced some books to be condensed (with the legend, "Condensed for Wartime Reading") but most were not, and bore the legend, "This is the complete book - Not a Digest." ASEs were phased out in 1947 with the dissolution of the Council on Books in Wartime.

Authors whose works were published as ASEs did not collect royalties for the sales, but they did get heartfelt and moving fan letters. To give you an idea of the fervor: Betty Smith, the author of "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," alone received 10,000 letters from troops during the war - along with many requests for signed photos, one of which is shown in the photo below.

An online version of the exhibition, which was curated by Molly Guptill Manning, a law professor, is available here.

The Grolier Club is located on 47 E. 60th street between Madison and Park Aves. Monday-Saturday, 10 am - 5 pm.

"To My Darling Wife Eunice"  - The Best Read Army in the World Exhibit at the Grolier Club 2
"To My Darling Wife Eunice"  - The Best Read Army in the World Exhibit at the Grolier Club 3

In 1944
In 1944, the USPS banned shipment of Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit, probably because it featured an interracial relationship, but after public outcry it and other formerly banned books became ASEs.

Among the items on display: the official U.S. Army’s Library Branch uniform
Among the items on display: the official U.S. Army’s Library Branch uniform

"To My Darling Wife Eunice"  - The Best Read Army in the World Exhibit at the Grolier Club 6
Join the conversation
11/15/2023 Jack Weidenbach
Wonderful article! Thank you so much for making me aware of this.
11/15/2023 Sue Tolleson-Rinehart
Thank you so much for this, Joel -- thos is a most welcome reminder that we can enlighten each other, at a time when so many seem to want to snuff out the light. I believe I recall a shot of a service member reading the ASE version of "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" in either Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan.
11/15/2023 Gerry Cox
Thank you for posting this! In WWII, my father, Gerard H. Cox, Jr., published in New York a series of two mysteries in one small paperback. I saw them as a child, and I have a dim memory that the second mystery was printed upside down and started at the last page. He commented once that there was a huge demand for these, so he could have made a lot of money publishing them--but there were wartime restrictions on the amount of paper available.

In a lifetime of scouring for used books, I've never happened on one of these 2-in-1 paperbacks. Why would anyone save them? But they did serve a need.
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