Thursday, September 2, 2010

Cheap books might set you free

Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant bookbinder, was both representative of the last gasp of the freethought movement as a distinct part of American life and the rags-to-riches story of a successful capitalist.

Haldeman-Julius (1889-1951) had a dream of providing high-quality literature, political thought, and iconoclastic new writing at prices the masses could afford. He got started in 1919 by offering people 50 books in pamphlet form for $5 in advance. Enough people took him up that before long he was printing - at his most prolific - nearly a quarter million books a day.

When I first started reading about him this afternoon in Susan Jacoby's 2004 book "Freethinkers: A history of American Secularism," I thought, "Huh. Here's yet somebody else I've never heard of." Then, a few hours later, my feeble brain gave a rusty click as I remembered that these "little blue books" were the very books that flooded America during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. I may not have known the name of the publisher, but I certainly knew of the phenomenon. (From J-school? Earlier? Who knows?)

Anyway, Haldeman-Julius, a Democratic Socialist who hated communism and fascism with equal passion, succeeded both in bringing real, thoughtful writing to millions of Americans and making some big bucks. Even as the freethought movement was splintering to countless separate causes, Haldeman-Julius had been laying an important foundation.

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