By definition, world-changing events change the world, but we don’t necessarily see the shape of these changes until we are equipped with hindsight. What can a series of wartime efforts to motivate American soldiers tell us about how the publishing industry was completely revolutionised by the middle of the last century? And what can that tell us about what we are faced with today?

During World War II, Armed Services Editions or ASEs – paperbacks that could fit comfortably in the pockets of soldiers in uniform – were designed, produced and distributed to American soldiers away at war by the Council on Books in Wartime, a cooperative effort of the US armed services and the publishing industry. The impact of this initiative would not be known until four years after the war.

Paperbacks did exist before World War II. Allen Lane himself had sparked off the paperback revolution in the UK in 1935 to immediate success (raising a few eyebrows in the process by selling his sixpence reprints at the supermarket chain Woolworths). Lane came close on the heels of Albatross Books, the German publisher who had produced the first modern mass-market paperback in 1932.

In the US, Simon and Schuster had launched the Pocket Books label in 1939, the year the war began. Other publishers all over the world too had begun to join the paperback bandwagon. (And well before the 1930s, as early as the 1500s, Aldus Manutius in Venice issued what they called “portable” editions of Greek and Latin classics, while in 1841, Christian Bernhard of Tauchnitz Publishing in Leipzig produced paperbound volumes as reading material for travellers on the newly opened Leipzig-Dresden railroad.)

But the initial success of this little idea, while significant, spoke more of a thrifty subculture than of a viable alternative, more bargain-basement and magazine kiosk than high-street or storefront. The paperback did not really “disrupt” the industry until after the war, when American soldiers returned home, pockets full of books. (Soldiers wrote that the ASEs were “as popular as pin-up girls”.)

In 1946, the Council on Books in Wartime announced that 105 million copies of 934 titles published as ASEs had been distributed. That was a staggering number of copies to be in circulation at any time, much less wartime. Some even still were in circulation after the war.

In fact, soon after the war, paperbacks found their way into the regular trade market at a rate they hadn’t before. Bookstores that had been embarrassed to carry them began to display them prominently. By 1949, paperbacks were outselling hardcovers in the US, a sales figure that could admittedly be just as easily attributed to more books being available in paperback than ever before. It did also bring about the phenomenon of first-edition paperbacks, as opposed to paperback editions of existing hardcover editions.

What the war achieved

Today, the paperback is a ubiquitous reality in book publishing. But irrespective of where it began – the canals of Venice, the railroads of Leipzig or the aisles of Woolworths – one of its catalysts came later, in the shape and size of the pockets of the American cavalry. Which is to say: while paperbacks always existed with some degree of success, it can be argued that they didn’t really break out until a world-altering event like World War II led to ASEs, leading to an actual craze.

In fact, in a prescient 1942 letter (the ASE operations began in 1943) to the council, WW Norton, chairman of the executive committee overseeing the Council on Books in Wartime, wrote: “The net result to the industry and to the future of book reading can only be helpful. The very fact that millions of men will have an opportunity to learn what a book is and what it can mean is likely now and in post-war years to exert a tremendous influence on the post-war course of the industry.”

That same year, President Roosevelt wrote to Norton, ahead of a meeting of the council: “[A] war of ideas can no more be won without books than a naval war can be won without ships. Books, like ships, have the toughest armour, the longest cruising range, and mount the most powerful guns. I hope that all who write and publish and sell and administer books will, on the occasion of your meeting, rededicate themselves to the single task of arming the mind and spirit of the American people with the strongest and most enduring weapons.”

After that meeting, the publishers choosing the books made a bold gamble. While it was clear that crime and romance were the popular paperback sellers, they deliberately chose poetry and literary fiction to send to the soldiers – in addition, of course, to potboilers, or what the Gathings Committee, a select committee of the United States House of Representatives which launched a Congressional investigation into the paperback industry in 1952, would later refer to as “pornographic materials”. Their decision paid off when these books were found to be just as easily devoured as a Western. (An unlikely success among these battle-hardened men was Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a poignant coming-of-age novel about a bookish little girl in the tenements of Williamsburg.)

A cynic might argue that the soldiers had no choice in the matter, that they had to choose from what was on offer. But the change showed itself only later. When paperback sales slumped in 1946, it became clear that it was the lighter fare (traditionally reserved for paperback) that suffered, not the “serious” books that had found their way into the paperback format by then. Change had arrived.

What the pandemic can achieve

In the current context, we are indeed facing a world-altering event. What it’s doing to us, to our psyches, will not be known for a few years. Revolutions in book-consumption don’t occur with creation of format, as paperback publishing has taught us, they occur when we change.

It took nearly four years from the time American soldiers came home from war hungering for paperbacks for change to be visible in the data. But the years that preceded that moment were quivering with human change. War had taken a toll on the world in ways that required countries and economies to rebuild themselves. There was also a toll on the imagination.

Throughout history, it had always fallen to troubadours and poets, storytellers and philosophers, to rebuild that world, the one that existed outside treaty rooms and boardrooms. After World War II, rebuilding of that world necessitated a most unromantic thing – the cheap, small paperback.

Today, if our time in solitude changes us, can it be a change like that, even if it takes years for us to see its impact? If in our solitude we are still enough, lonely enough, hungry enough, silent enough, curious enough, might we reacquaint ourselves with an old habit? If we find ourselves, in these moments of solitude, reaching for a book, not for escape and solace, although there’s that as well, but for deep social connection, yearning for stories and companionship and intimacy, might we discover, to our own immense delight, that the deeper we travel into another world the closer we might feel to our own? Might we measure out an antidote of fiction for our loneliest hours, great characters to fill our empty homes, and thoughtful conversation to drown out the silence?

And when we emerge from crisis, as I hope we will, might we find that this change is irrevocable? Will that be the reading revolution?