As Nazi Germany was staging large-scale book burnings of any titles that went against its fascist beliefs, the United States sought to arm its soldiers during World War II with a weapon that was emblematic of the freedom of expression it was fighting to preserve: the softcover book. Merely meant to entertain the troops during the lulls in between combat, the country’s initiative to provide them with low-cost reading material found its way home after the war and forever changed the way the public reads its books.

The paperback book trend that had picked up steam in Germany and Britain was having a rougher start in the United States in the late 1930s, with Penguin and Pocket Books attempting to offer high-quality novels in a cheaper package, according to Atlas Obscura. Previous to this, softcover books typically featured quick entertainment like Westerns, cheap mysteries, tawdry romances, and pulpy adventure tales. Though Penguin and Pocket Books wanted to change that perception by offering far more notable works, many bookstores in the United States stuck to only selling novels as hardcovers aimed at a wealthier clientele. To most, a paperback printing of a great novel was nothing more than a novelty, and there simply wasn't an audience for inexpensive versions of high-quality reads. When America went to war, though, the paperback went with it.

The first effort to get books into troops’ hands was a donation drive run by the Army and the American Library Association. Called the Victory Book Campaign, the initiative proved only moderately successful. Though Americans came through with donations, many of the books the VBC received were unsuitable for troops overseas. After all, how many soldiers would want to pore over a copy of How to Knit while on the front lines? Plus, receiving tens of thousands of books from donors, having volunteers search for acceptable titles, and getting them to troops was laborious and wasteful, and the crates were often ignored in favor of shipping more important items like rations and ammo.

Raymond L. Trautman, head of the Army’s Library Section, had another plan. H. Stanley Thompson, a graphic artist working for the Army, approached Trautman with a way to print paperback books on the same presses used for magazines. The assembly would be quick, the books would be thin, and they would be small enough for soldiers to store in their pockets. If they could get publishers to print select titles and ship them directly to soldiers, it would prove far less time-consuming and expensive.

Trautman went to the Council of Books in Wartime—a trade group made up of publishing titans dedicated to getting books into the hands of troops—with the proposal. It was eventually agreed upon, with the different publishers on the council allowing many of their most famous books to be reprinted and sold to the military for just 6 cents per copy. Books would measure in at 512 by 378 inches or 612 by 412 inches depending on their length, and text would be printed in double columns on each page to reduce strain on the eyes.

An example of a typical ASE book that a soldier would have been given during WWII.Michael Sauers/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

These Army Services Edition (ASE) books began reaching the front in the middle of 1943. There was one crate of books per every 150 soldiers and sailors, and the program eventually shipped 155,000 crates every month, according to The Atlantic. In the end, 122,951,031 copies of 1322 ASE titles were printed and distributed to soldiers around the globe.

An advisory committee curated an enormous selection for the program. There were titles ranging from literary classics like Moby Dick, Plato’s Republic, and The Grapes of Wrath to the hard-boiled detective work of Raymond Chandler and the comic book adventures of Superman. There were also poetry and history books, and titles on U.S. foreign policy. By all accounts, these book crates were some of the most welcome sights during the brutal conflict, with one GI proclaiming that paperbacks were “as popular as pin-up girls.”

The soldiers' love of books didn't just stop once the war was over; as Molly Guptill Manning, author of When Books Went to War, explained to Smithsonian, the ASE program forever changed American reading habits:

"The average WWII conscript had an 11th-grade education and did not read books. During the war, sometimes out of sheer desperation for something to do, the men would pick up books because they were the only entertainment around. Many service members came home with a love of books. Thanks to the popularity of the ASEs, publishers started to release cheap paperback editions for civilians, so veterans returned to a flourishing paperback trade."

The ASE provided the young men and women with books they never would have touched before, and in some cases it helped turn previously obscure authors into icons. Before the conflict, a title like The Great Gatsby garnered a fairly tepid critical reaction and even less inspiring sales, but when it was included in the ASE line, it blossomed. While Scribners printed a mere 25,000 copies of the novel from 1925 to 1942, around 155,000 ASE copies were shipped to soldiers during the war, according to a Library of Congress report by Matthew J. Bruccoli, an expert on F. Scott Fitzgerald. This new generation of readers helped revive the work, and it's been a staple of high school reading curriculums ever since.

The years after the war shifted the opinion of the paperbacks from cheap entertainment to a format in which the greatest works of literature could be printed. Some within publishing worried that the ASE program would ruin the industry by flooding the civilian market with surplus copies for just pennies, but it instead wound up creating a paperback book market that opened the doors to a whole new audience of readers that would never have been able to afford these books otherwise.

By 1949, paperbacks were officially outselling the more expensive hardcover books for the first time. Americans had come home from war with an appetite for books, and the burgeoning softcover market was the perfect, affordable way to satisfy it.