- Reading Germany: Literature and Consumer Culture in Germany before 1933
At a time when German history is awash with studies about consumption, consumer culture, and mass culture, scholars are increasingly hard-pressed to find original angles on a theme that can suffer from a certain vagueness. What is consumer culture, after all? Does it deal with shopping, advertising, consumer activism, mass leisure, or all of the above? How can scholars historicize and analyze consumer culture without placing too many themes under its broad umbrella? Gideon Reuveni takes up this challenge by asking us to consider a key question: What does the ostensibly private act of reading have to do with consumer culture, beyond the actual purchase of the book? The result is an excellent monograph that enlivens the discussion of consumer culture by showing both how the values of consumption were disseminated in books, and how books themselves became increasingly important and contested commercial objects.
Reuveni begins by assessing claims during the Weimar period that Germany was undergoing a "book crisis." Both liberals and conservatives feared that with the rise of new forms of mass culture—primarily the cinema—books risked becoming obsolete, or that the literature on offer was increasingly a "trashy" pandering to the masses. Reuveni reveals that such presumptions of crisis were false (the production and consumption of books increased after World War I), and that the growing attraction to reading transcended class lines. If anything, the rise of mass forms of entertainment (combined with the hunger for news that had come about during the war) facilitated rather than hindered reading, opening up new spaces for obtaining and consuming reading materials.
Of course, reading takes many forms, and Reuveni leaves no stone unturned in his investigation into its different manifestations. He looks not only at books, but also at magazines, newspapers, journals, advertisements, and even movie collector cards. We encounter every component of the book itself: the paper, the binding, dust jackets, typeface, and font. Reuveni, in addition, places the reading object within a matrix of competing and parallel interests that demonstrate the omnipresence of the written word in the Weimar years. He presents statistics about book publishers, bookshops, book clubs, book peddlers, kiosks, and lending libraries, while offering a wealth of material—broken down by gender and class—on what people were actually reading. [End Page 190]
What does this multi-angled examination have to do with consumer culture? Reuveni convincingly argues that the increasing dependence on advertising in the 1920s, as well as the larger debates within the book industry about how best to increase sales, placed the book at the center of discussions about consumer interests and habits. Moreover, books themselves became purveyors of messages about the appeal and importance of commerce and consumption. For example, tobacco companies commissioned non-fiction and plot-driven books that dealt with the history of their product. Or they included mini-books in packages of cigarettes. Likewise, the "consumer-spectator" (p.204) was increasingly drawn to a book by its presentation, in keeping with the widespread attention to visual culture in the 1920s and early 1930s. Workers and members of the middle class also drew up household budgets that included spending on reading materials. Importantly, then, reading straddled the line between bourgeois culture and mass culture. As the working class bought more books, it turned in part toward traditional forms of bourgeois culture, such as classic literature, that elites hoped would have the effect of social uplift. Yet it also imbibed the norms of mass culture, as workers encountered reading in public spaces, in multiple commercial transactions, and in the "trashy" works that the bourgeoisie was itself reading.
By impressively integrating intellectual, social, economic, and cultural history, Reuveni offers a compelling, if dense, work. Where the study falls short is in its failure to address the larger political and cultural context. What do we gain in our understanding of the Weimar years by looking at reading habits and debates about reading? Since Reading Germany ends in 1933...