The Taschenbuch Collection

Text & Materiality Parting Ways

The Taschenbuch, and the Musenalmanach before it, are positioned at a crossroads between a dynamic literary culture and an increasingly material and consumerist one. It is precisely this crossroads that caused Goethe, Schiller, and Schlegel so much anxiety about the form and the changes that it presaged.

In an overwhelming majority of the volumes, the text and images included alongside it are apparently unrelated. Like the example to the right, featured in Heidelbergisches Taschenbuch 1809, the text speaks not at all to the engraving beside it. The reader is forced to puzzle out, perhaps to no effect, what the relation between the two might be.

Indeed, it has been argued by Christoph Rauen that the Taschenbuch had a certain kind of inherent obsolescence, asserting itself as current in the year in which it was published, in addition to alerting readers to the subsequent volume to be published in the following year that would replace it. This marked the coming of a new kind of reading, quite different from Biblical exegesis, where the text was engaged over and over again, in which the reader was encouraged by the very form of the Taschenbuch to consume its contents rather than to read and re-read them.

Der Freund des Schönen Geschlechts. Ein angenehm und nützlicher Taschenkalender für das Jahr 1820 (Left) & Musenalmanach 1771 (Right): These two editions showcase the interactive paratextual qualities of the Taschenbücher. On the left, there is a mirror by which one meets their own reflection upon opening the Taschenbuch. On the right, we can see a former owner practicing their script (G’s and B’s) in a few semi-erasable pages at the back of the edition for notes and other miscellany. The Taschenbücher are interactive books: they are places to stow money or papers (as in the editions with pockets), to take notes, to check one’s appearance. These qualities highlight how divorced the material trappings had become from the literary contents: the books were nützlich (useful) in more ways than one.

On the one hand, the literary art featured within their pages remained sacred, but on the other, this ideal art was featured within highly material, timely, and even opulent volumes. Authors like Goethe and Ludwig von Tieck even took measures to republish those works first circulated in Taschenbücher, like Goethe’s own Hermann und Dorothea, in single volumes to assert their literary value and timelessness. Perhaps, a better, less literal translation of Taschenbuch would be gift-book: a phrase that communicates more clearly its commercial and literary significance. Indeed, despite resistance, the Taschenbuch and, thereby, the contents within them, were forced to participate in the marketplace and become commodities after all.

Gedenke Mein! Taschenbuch für das Jahr 1838: While the contents of these two copies are identical and published in the same place and at the same time, the material difference is immense: where the edition on the left features Gothic type, heavy iron ornaments, a clasp, and plush purple cloth, the one on the right is a much simpler embossed pinkish paper over boards. Not uncommon for Taschenbücher, this publisher released two (if not more) editions of the same volume for different price points. Such difference in bindings between single editions points to the element of status that these books had acquired: the wealthy would want such a magnificent volume to give out as gifts at Christmas time or showcase on their own shelves, not merely to read its contents.

Ultimately, the Taschenbuch Collection is an invaluable resource if one seeks to understand German culture of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Their various textual and material elements make them fascinating objects with which to engage. Whether one seeks to uncover a Goethe poem, still untranslated into English, to find little-known women authors of the late 1700s, to see hand-colored engravings of the fashion of the period, or to simply revel in beautiful and antique craftsmanship, the Taschenbücher are a wonderful place to begin. These 1700 volumes act as a time-capsule for a culture long-departed but still very much with us. As Goethe reflects on the German language in the same poem that harps on the Taschenbücher: “Ob sich gleich auf deutsch nichts reimet, // Reimt der Deutsche dennoch fort” (Whether nothing rhymes exactly in German, // The German rhymes still). So, too, do the Taschenbücher.

Scroll to Top