At first glance they fulfil all the criteria of a cheap novel. They don’t cost much and look rather meagre on bookshelves alongside tomes bound in pigskin. But don’t be led astray. "These little yellow books are still a ticket to immortality, and an author’s appearance in the ‘Universal-Bibliothek’ is akin to acceptance in the German Pantheon" (Ulrich Raulff). This October the publishing company to which we owe this particular expression of culture celebrates 175 years of success, inconceivable without the little yellow books.
Beginning with Goethe’s Faust Part IIn the year 1828 21 year-old Anton Philipp Reclam borrowed 3,000 Thalers from his father and bought the "Literarische Museum" in Leipzig, a lending library with a reading room. In the same year the young man set up a publishing company, first called the "Verlag des literarischen Museums" and nine years later renamed "Philipp Reclam jun.".
So this firm had already been in existence for some years when the real story of its success began on the 9th of November 1867. It was then that the German Federal Assembly approved an ordinance granting all German authors copyright protecting publication of their books after death. After 30 years had passed – today seventy years – books were deemed to be in the public realm so that anyone could print them. This "de-restriction" provided the initial impulse for establishing the "Universal-Bibliothek" and what one of the company’s first advertisements called a comprehensive "collection of separate editions of generally popular works".
Of course Philipp Reclam was not the only publisher helped by liberalisation of copyright law. A number of cheap editions of the classics appeared at this time. But Reclam prevailed. Thanks to a special printing process, known as stereotyping, the company could produce its little paperbacks, whose covers were embellished with a red rose at that time, very cheaply and sell at low prices. A Universal-Bibliothek book cost 20 pfennigs. The series got under way programmatically with German literature’s absolute classic: Goethe’s Faust Part I.
Education for AllThe Reclam Verlag thus succeeded in making classical literature accessible to the "man on the street", who could not afford to spend much on books. The fact that the Universal-Bibliothek also published author’s books separately was something special. It was thus no longer necessary for people to buy expensive complete editions.
The range of works on offer was constantly extended. Alongside German and European literature the Universal Library also offered texts from Classical Antiquity, philosophical works, popular reading-matter, editions of the legal code, and opera libretti.
This concept was hugely successful. From 1912 Reclaim introduced book-vending machines, which were something new in German publishing. By 1917 there were around 2,000 such machines in Germany, offering books rather than, as today, sweets or drinks.
"All of us can experience a taste of immortality under Reclam’s domed canopy"These little books – with their characteristic yellow covers since 1970 – thus made a triumphant progress through all levels of society. Many a writer who was soon to appear in the Universal-Bibliothek looked back with nostalgia to his first encounters with a series which provided the initial meeting with literature. Thomas Mann, for instance, remembered in 1908: "I so much loved these little yellow and red books, to which I owed my most pleasant hours, that I dreamt of seeing one of my own works brought out in this series, and that dream persists up to the present day. If thirty years after my death, this or that book of mine were to appear in the Reclam library, wouldn’t that be a mini-immortality?" His novella "Tristan" did actually appear in the Universal-Bibliothek in 1924 while Mann was still alive.
World Literature at SchoolThere are probably still many young people in Germany who first made the acquaintance of the great names in the world of culture by way of the Reclam Verlag. The Universal-Bibliothek has thus maintained its role. But people today don’t treat these books as reverentially as Thomas Mann once did. Decorated, scribbled over, transformed, and illustrated, Reclam books serve as a welcome way of passing the time during a boring German lesson.
Goethe’s Iphigenie auf Tauris" is thus turned into "Iphigenie kauft Tauris", or Schiller’s "Kabale und Liebe" into "Kaba und Liebe". The latter also served as the title for an exhibition – at Cologne’s "Museum of Thoughtlessness" some years ago – of paperbacks embellished by school pupils, and the catalogue was published by the Reclam-Verlag. Reclam’s Universal-Bibliothek is a part of culture. Even though this publishing company doesn’t only bring out the yellow paperbacks – It also produces proper books at corresponding prices -- , its celebrity is nevertheless indissolubly linked with the Universal-Bibliothek.
For anyone who wants to find out more about the history of this publishing company, it should also be mentioned that a short chronicle is available as a yellow paperback – for just one euro.
Antonia Loick, Cleeves Communication UnitZwei
Journalist and writer, Cologne