New-old gifts for the troops

While other people have been thinking about gifts that will slip easily into a Christmas stocking, Andrew Carroll has had cargo-pocket measurements in mind. He recently helped revive a World War II practice of giving troops special editions of books - just the right size to carry around or tuck under a bunk-bed pillow.

Between 1943 and 1947, the US government worked with publishers to distribute more than 123 million paperback Armed Services Editions (ASEs). Among the 1,300-plus titles were fiction works by Hemingway and Fitzgerald, philosophy classics such as Plato's "Republic," and advice books about, say, the new hot career fields (Chapter 1: Plastics).

Mr. Carroll says his inspiration was a WWII Steinbeck edition he came across in 1999. To start up the ASEs again, he drew on connections with publishers and military personnel that he had forged through his Legacy Project, a volunteer effort to preserve war correspondence (see www.warletters.com).

The first four titles of the new ASEs - a total of about 100,000 books - have just made their way into soldiers' hands at bases from Afghanistan to Bosnia. "War Letters," a collection edited by Carroll, is in this batch, along with Shakespeare's Henry V; "Medal of Honor," profiles of military heroes; and "The Art of War," a translation of an ancient Chinese text about strategy.

The next round will be unrelated to war - perhaps a mix of mysteries, humor, and biographies.

Costs are covered by publishers' donations and private funds, rather than the government. But the books - like their WWII predecessors - are printed in cargo-pocket size.

"We want the troops to know these books are just for them, as a way to say, 'We're thinking of you,' " Carroll says.

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