Reading society

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Reading societies were the most widespread form of organization outside of the state, church and corporate social order in the enlightened 18th and early 19th centuries and are viewed as an early form of adult education . The first reading societies emerged in Germany around 1720, the largest number of them being established in the early 19th century. At the end of the 18th century, there were an estimated 500 reading societies in the Old Kingdom with more than 25,000 members.

Later, the reading societies in the German-speaking cultural area developed in part to bearers of bourgeois emancipation and contributed to the formation of political parties in the 19th century .


Reading societies were an important instrument of a bourgeois reading culture, which in some cases grew rapidly in the 18th century. In contrast to individual reading and intensive re-reading of devotional literature, they were set up by private individuals as institutions for organized extensive reading consumption.

The revolution in the book market , which, after the stagnation of book printing in the 17th century, resulted in a sharp increase in book production and an expanded range of titles for all written media, new readership groups were won, although large parts of the general population continued to be excluded from reading. In view of the relatively high book prices, often not easily accessible works, and the need for communal exchange, an association of those interested in literature in the form of reading societies was obvious, especially since experience with the forerunner of the reading circle and community subscriptions to periodicals was already available. At the same time, specialized reading societies emerged, such as specialist reading societies (e.g. theological, legal or medical branches) whose specific orientation ensured a certain group of members.

At the end of the 18th century there were only a few cities in Germany that did not have at least one reading society; rural reading societies, on the other hand, were much rarer, although the bulk of the population had elementary literacy skills. In principle, the Protestant north of Germany was represented more strongly than the Catholic south; in southern Germany the founding of reading societies did not begin until later.

The German reading societies were predominantly bourgeois; From the time of the Enlightenment onwards, they were sometimes also considered to be associations to promote the emancipation of the bourgeoisie. Nevertheless, the proportion of aristocratic members was considerable, especially in the residential cities . Although there were numerous reading societies, which members of all social classes were allowed to join, mostly statutory requirements such as certain admission requirements or simply high membership fees ensured social demarcation. A general exclusion of women and students was characteristic of most reading societies. Very few reading societies were really open to both sexes, all classes and all professions across all classes.

As early as the first decades of the 19th century, the number of startups across the country was falling again; many reading societies and reading circles only existed for a short time or were transformed into "sociability" (from which, according to Wittmann, the first workers' education associations developed) within the framework of the newly emerging association system. Reasons were, on the one hand, the reduction in the price of books and periodicals, which were being produced in ever larger editions and the cost of which individual copies were becoming increasingly affordable for private individuals, and, on the other hand, since the French Revolution, greater controls, sometimes even bans. For example, the Würzburg Society, which was founded in 1785, was banned the following year, “because, according to a contemporary, the prince-bishop considered reading political writings to be dangerous, unconditional and unrestricted reading generally harmful” and, in particular, because “society is part of a political and revolutionary club degenerated '".

Another reason may have been that most reading societies gave priority to "useful" literature and periodicals over novels and short stories; Fiction was sometimes even completely excluded. With their decline, emerging lending libraries took their place.

Although the term "reading society" had already appeared in the early 18th century , it describes a large-scale and unspecialized, cultural phenomenon of the time and means a rather heterogeneous group of societies that are not only " reading circles ", "reading institutes", " reading clubs " or "Reading Cabinet", but also "Resource", "Societät", "Club", "Casino", " Museum " or "Harmonie".

The previous forms of the 17th century were " language societies " for the purification, standardization and promotion of regional languages . This development began in 1617 in the German-speaking area with the fruitful society of Prince Ludwig I of Anhalt-Köthen and three dukes from Saxony . With the success of these societies, which became apparent in the fact that a high-level language was established and dialects were pushed into the background, the interest of the subsequent societies turned to literature around 1700 . The German Society of Leipzig, which was established in 1717, became the model for societies in which literature lovers came together, who often recorded their work in magazine publications.

The essential differences between the actual reading societies of the 18th century and the learned and literary societies of the previous 17th century are, apart from the time lag, their composition and intentions. In the 17th century it was mostly a question of communities of academics who, on the one hand , wanted to expand and secure their sphere of activity within the estates society , and on the other hand, tried to make the rare specialist literature accessible to one another. They were only a part of the general, otherwise scientifically oriented academy movement specialized in literature and language .

The literary societies at the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries emerged from the patriotic-moral claim to promote a German ( Protestant ) culture and to become effective in the areas of education and moral edification.

In contrast, the reading societies of the late 18th century were rather “emergency communities” of a regional, upscale and educated middle class of citizens and civil servants raised to the nobility , who wanted to participate in the current book market and literature and thus in the age of growing knowledge through their united approach . These media were too expensive to the extent that they were needed to quench the thirst for knowledge. On the other hand, literature reached an ever-growing customer base in which the need grew to discuss and test the knowledge acquired with like-minded people. This development went hand in hand with the change in general reading behavior, away from repetitive reading, such as the Bible , towards reading once everything the literary market had to offer, i.e. reading it once. This means that not only the works of recognized poets, but above all magazines or popular scientific writings were read.

Reading circle

The earliest type and the nucleus of the later reading societies was the reading circle . He procured the desired literature, that is, as a rule, magazines and similar periodical publications, either as a collective property or at an evenly distributed load, and let it "circulate". It was a further development of the "community subscription", which was originally limited to magazines. This development took place in the 1740s . A few years later, the members of these institutions were the first to claim the newly emerging term “reading societies”. (A modern form of the reading circle is magazine editions compiled for display in waiting rooms ).

Reading library

Establishment of community libraries in order to notify the perpetrators directly about omissions, so that only those works were loaned that really interested the respective reader. Magazines continued to circulate among members.

Reading cabinet

This development began around 1775 , but only where, on the one hand, the members lived in reasonable proximity to the library and, on the other hand, expressed the need to meet relatively regularly. For the establishment of a reading cabinet, an urban social structure was almost inevitable. A remarkable emancipatory effect of the reading cabinets was that with the library and the common rooms a considerable property developed, the common management of which led to a financial association - like a stock corporation  - so that membership meant a social appreciation.

The club

Clubs were further developments of the reading cabinets based on English models of the same name. The reading activity was pushed back in favor of the goals of a "social club". As a result of the French Revolution and the use of the term “club” ( Jacobin Club ) in this context, the societies were renamed to “harmony”.

Awareness reading societies

Enlightenment reading societies were founded with pedagogical objectives and a corresponding selection of literature.


Some reading societies later renamed themselves museum societies, a word formation that gives rise to misunderstandings today. The reason lay in the expansion of the interests of the educated middle class beyond reading. One felt obliged to the muses for theater, music and dance and therefore viewed the rooms of the society in which the events took place as a temple of the muses: in Greek museion or in the Latinized form museum .

Examples of reading societies

Literary friendship circles

More exclusive reading cabinets, in which academic and social leadership elites of a city or region came together.


Social reading

In the meantime there are also offers comparable to reading societies on the Internet. The ability to exchange books online is known as social reading . This means an online, intensive and permanent exchange of texts. This includes not only academic texts, but also private reading. Special platforms such as, LovelyBooks and GoodReads are available for this. One advantage of this exchange is that the geographic distance of the users does not matter. For publishers, network effects, ideally through viral distribution of positive reviews, can result in advantages in the marketing of their products. Since the reader's reception behavior becomes public, it can be examined in terms of the sociology of communication with regard to reader-reader and author-reader interactions.

The online community BücherTreff was founded in 2003 and a dozen years later reached over 20,000 users and provides their reviews .

See also


  • Martin Biastoch : The Concilium Germanicum at the Great School in Wolfenbüttel 1910-2010: A contribution to Wolfenbüttel's educational history . Essen 2010, ISBN 978-3-939413-09-7 .
  • Otto Dann (ed.): Reading societies and bourgeois emancipation, a European comparison . Munich 1981.
  • Rolf Engelsing: The citizen as a reader, readers' story in Germany 1500-1800 . Stuttgart 1974.
  • Ernst L. Hauswedell, Christian Voigt (ed.): Book art and literature in Germany 1750-1850 . Hamburg 1977, p. 287f.
  • Helmuth Janson: 45 reading societies around 1800 until today . Bonn 1963.
  • Irene Jentsch: On the history of newspaper reading in Germany at the end of the 18th century . Diss., Leipzig 1937.
  • Torsten Liesegang: Reading societies in Baden 1780–1850. A contribution to the structural change of the literary public . Berlin 2000.
  • Marlies Prüsener: Reading Societies in the Eighteenth Century . In: Börsenblatt für den Deutschen Buchhandel , 29, Frankfurt am Main 1972, pp. 189–301.
  • Hilmar Tilgner: Reading societies on the Moselle and Middle Rhine in the age of enlightened absolutism. A contribution to the social history of the Enlightenment in the Electorate of Trier . Stuttgart 2001, ISBN 3-515-06945-3 (regarding Trier, Koblenz and Mainz).
  • Matthias Wießner: The Journal Society: a Leipzig reading society around 1800 . In: Leipzig yearbook on book history . Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden 2004, Vol. 13, pp. 103-175, ISSN  0940-1954 .

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Marlis Prüsener: Reading societies in the 18th century. In: Börsenblatt für den Deutschen Buchhandel , 29, 1972, pp. 189–301.
  2. Christa Berg: Handbook of the German history of education . Volume 3. CH Beck, 1987, ISBN 3-406-32468-1 .
  3. ^ Möller: p. 262, Hardtwig: p. 293, van Dülmen: p. 84, Zaunstöck: p. 153.
  4. ^ Hermann Bausinger: Enlightenment and reading mania . In: Studies on the history of the city of Schwäbisch Hall . Schwäbisch Hall 1980, pp. 179-195.
  5. ^ Rolf Engelsing: The citizen as a reader, readers' story in Germany 1500-1800 . Metzler, 1974, pp. 183/186
  6. Reinhart Siegert: On literacy in the German regions at the end of the 18th century . In: Hans Erich Bödeker, Ernst Hinrichs (Hrsg.): Literacy and literarization in Germany in the early modern period . Tübingen 1999, ISBN 3-484-17526-5 , pp. 283-307
  7. Stützel-Präsener, p 74
  8. u. a .: Rebekka Habermas: women and men of the bourgeoisie. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2000, ISBN 3-525-35679-X , p. 157.
  9. ^ Reinhard Wittmann : History of the German book trade. P. 210
  10. ^ Reinhard Wittmann: History of the German book trade. P. 209
  11. Dominique Pleimling: Social Reading - Reading in the Digital Age , From Politics and Contemporary History 41-42 / 2012