It was well known at the time that Germany and other Axis powers were fond of book burning. This tried and true Fascist trick was quickly becoming a symbol of the oppression dictators like Hitler and Mussolini were trying to spread throughout Europe and beyond. The Council of Books in Wartime saw a multi-faceted opportunity. If they were to distribute books - free books - to American soldiers fighting overseas, not only would we be boosting the morale of our own troops, but the world would see America's freedom. Not only do we not burn books in America, we give them away - we fly books thousands of miles over vast oceans to distribute them to our soldiers.
Of course, the publishers had other motives as well. They were hoping to create a new generation of readers; men who would return from war with a love of books that they would then pass on to their children and so on and so forth. It was, in a sense, a financial investment.
The editions of books the Council chose to publish would become known as the Armed Services Editions. And they were amazing. The publishers went with quality literature, but they needed to be able to publish new editions cheaply (the army was only paying $0.06 per book). They ended up using magazine presses to keep the cost low and the books were wider than they were tall with two columns of text on each page. The first boxes were shipped out in the summer of 1943 and were an instant hit with the troops.
Over the next four years, 122,951,031 Armed Services Edition books were printed. These were quality, hard-cover books being turned into portable paperbacks for our troops. And it was amazing. Did it pay off? In a word, yes. But in ways not expected. Veterans did return from the war still yearning to read books, but it wasn't the hard cover books the publishers were hoping for. Instead, they ushered in a new demand for paperback books that brought publishers unexpected profits and turned reading into a new American pastime.
But how does The Great Gatsby figure into all of this? I nearly forgot to tell you. One of the books chosen to be published and sent to the troops in 1945 was a little-known short novel that probably shouldn't even have been included by the Council. It had only sold 120 copies in 1944 and by 1945 it had been allowed to go out of print entirely because it was so obscure. But for whatever reason, it was included in the list of books and 155,000 copies were sent off overseas. The novel, of course, was The Great Gatsby. Without the Council of Books in Wartime, Fitzgerald's novel would never have become required classroom reading in America. A most interesting turn of events.
For more information on this interesting event, consult Yoni Applebaum's article in The Atlantic.