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  • The Eighteenth-Century Novel as Media Event
  • Matt Erlin and Sean Franzel

In 1773, Friedrich Nicolai published the first installment of the novel that would eventually become one of the most popular German works of fiction of the eighteenth century.1 Appearing in three volumes between 1773 and 1776, Das Leben und die Meinungen des Herrn Magister Sebaldus Nothanker follows a bumbling theologian on a range of circuitous episodes alternating between the tragic and the ridiculous. Nothanker is an aspiring scholarly author who, in proper Sternian fashion, is possessed by a heterodox theological “hobby horse” that he is compelled to share with the world, namely an unusual interpretation of the Biblical book of Revelation that, predictably, arouses the disfavour of church and state authorities (the title of Nicolai’s novel takes its cue from Lawrence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman [1759–67]). After the loss of his provincial pastorship and his wife’s abrupt death, Sebaldus moves to Leipzig, the centre of the German book trade (and a stop of the first article in this special issue). Seeking to get his foot in the door of the publishing world, Sebaldus wanders “von Druckerey zu Druckerey und von Buchladen zu Buchladen” (63), awed by the material presence of the literary market surrounding him:

Wenn ich die hiesigen unermeßlichen Bücherniederlagen betrachtet habe, ist mir die unausgesetzte Geschäftigkeit der Gelehrten recht ehrwürdig vorgekommen. Ich hätte nie gedacht, daß so viele Bücher in der Welt wären [. . .], und daß jährlich einige hundert oder tausend hinzukommen.


Stacks and piles of books were certainly a familiar sight to Nicolai, one of the more successful booksellers and publishers of his time. But Sebaldus’s first experience of the publishing industry occurs against the backdrop of a conversation with a jaded fellow Magister, who, in a Rousseauian diatribe, disabuses Sebaldus of his belief that, in the case of books, more is always better. The profession of the Schriftsteller is a “Gewerbe,” not a sacred Beruf, and books are “Waaren,” with Leipzig as their primary depot. [End Page 99]

Durch dis Gewerbe, und nicht durch die Begierde das menschliche Geschlecht zu erleuchten, entsteht die unsägliche Menge von Büchern [. . .]; denn Leipzig ist freilich seit mehr als hundert Jahren die Stapelstadt der Waaren, die diese gelehrten Handwerker zu jeder Meße verfertigen.


Here we have an altogether material instantiation of ‘Enlightenment;’ according to the Magister, however, the proliferation of printed matter is an enterprise more commercial than moral. Scenes of reading abound in the eighteenthcentury novel, so much so that depictions of readers, disquisitions on reading preferences, and personal reading histories become very nearly inseparable from the form. But in this episode we catch a glimpse of printed books not first and foremost as carriers of meaning or indicators of enriched inwardness but instead as commodities, stacked in piles and prepared for distribution.

In the midst of the medial transformations of the twenty-first century, it is no longer controversial to think of eigtheenth-century medial upheavals as equally historic and revolutionary in comparison to those we are currently experiencing. Not least because of passages such as the one cited above and the author’s professional background, a number of scholars have looked to Sebaldus Nothanker as a source for information on these upheavals, including both an eighteenth-century boom in novel production and a dramatic expansion in the literary market more generally (for recent examples see Kawohl 224–28; North 11–12; Selwyn 16–19). The boom in the genre of the novel has been well documented in a variety of studies, but the statistics nonetheless bear repeating. The numbers presented by Marion Beaujean in 1964 – although the subject of some debate –make the case with perhaps the greatest precision: 73 novels published between 1740 and 1750 versus 1,623 between 1791 and 1800 (178). In turn, other scholars have charted the dramatic uptick in vernacular publications, the increase in literacy, and the rise in new literary forms, critical venues, and sites for exchange. It has become long since clear that the eighteenth-century expansion, differentiation, and commercialization of the literary market transformed practices...


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