Academic journal article Goethe Yearbook

Necessary Luxuries: Books, Literature, and the Culture of Consumption in Germany, 1770-1815

Academic journal article Goethe Yearbook

Necessary Luxuries: Books, Literature, and the Culture of Consumption in Germany, 1770-1815

Article excerpt

Matt Erlin, Necessary Luxuries: Books, Literature, and the Culture of Consumption in Germany, 1770-1815. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP and Cornell University Library, 2014. 264 pp.

For anyone who has wondered why German literature is not much fun, this book yields suggestive hints, even though that is not the author's declared aim. The primary concern is with the "question of whether artistic pursuits have any demonstrable value for society at all" (1). The main title's witty contradiction underscores the debate about whether literature was a productive contribution to society or whether it was a frivolity contributing to wasteful consumption of luxury goods. The subtitle of this well-written book clearly announces the topic: "Books, Literature, and the Culture of Consumption in Germany, 1770-1815." The term "Germany" follows popular convention; the dates bracket the turn of the century and highlight the decades when the debates were particularly intense. The references to books and literature do not obscure the fact that this is a cultural studies project, aligning itself with, among others, Karin Wurst's Fabricating Pleasure: Fashion, Entertainment and Cultural Consumption in Germany, 1780-1830 (2005) and Daniel Purdy's The Tyranny of Elegance: Consumer Cosmopolitanism in the Era of Goethe (1998), both of which Erlin cites frequently and approvingly.

The introduction and the first three chapters develop the outlines of the contemporary, primarily but not exclusively German, discourses on luxury. The rise in the consumption of goods beyond the necessities of life awakened many anxieties and criticisms, especially on the part of philosophers and political economists. Erlin does a good job of presenting the relevant ideas by examining figures like Ferdinand Friedrich Pfeiffer (Probschrift von dem Luxus, 1779), Joseph Sonnenfels, Christoph Meiners, and Isaak Iselin, many of whom are hardly known to students of literature.

Chapter 2 is a foray into material culture, concentrating on the production of extravagant editions of books, such as Wieland's Musarion published in Vienna in 1808. High-quality paper, typesetting, and binding underscored that books could become luxury commodities, giving concrete ties to the aesthetic issues. Oddly enough, however, the copies of Musarion were destined not for the market but to be given as gifts to win favor for the publisher. Chapter 3 turns to the debates about the rage for reading at the end of the eighteenth century and the dangers it was thought to pose for the reader's mental and social equilibrium. The luxury of reading was seen as a threat to the hierarchical order of society and to the psychic stability of individuals.

Against this background Erlin turns to the examination of specific texts. All are prose works; neither poetry nor dramas are considered. As might be expected, the works have been selected because they show influences of the discussions about books and luxury consumption. …

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