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Useless Subjects: Reading and Consumer Culture in Eighteenth-Century Germany

Matt Erlin
The German Quarterly
Vol. 80, No. 2 (Spring, 2007), pp. 145-164
Published by: Wiley on behalf of the American Association of Teachers of German
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/27676048
Page Count: 20
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Useless Subjects: Reading and Consumer Culture in Eighteenth-Century Germany
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Abstract

The meteoric growth of the market for books and periodicals in eighteenth-century Germany not only gave rise to a literary public sphere; it also triggered wide-ranging and often hysterical fears of a "reading epidemic." Recent scholarship on this phenomenon has tended to address the topic from the perspective of the history of genre, class conflict, or gender politics. This essay proposes that we take a more holistic approach, one that builds upon recent work done on consumer culture in eighteenth-century Germany. Anxieties about reading, I argue, are best understood as one strand of a much broader confrontation with an emerging commercial society. Reflections on reading are inseparable from reflections on surplus consumption in the period, and recognizing this shared conceptual framework can help us to grasp why excessive reading was a source of such distress. More specifically, these reflections can help us to understand the threat posed by the spread of market mechanisms to a particular conception of subjective authenticity, a conception based on the principle of a harmonious balance among the various actions, behaviors, and attitudes seen to constitute the self.

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