Before Project Gutenberg, there were Little Blue Books. Before paperback books (not pamphlets, but books) came along in the 30’s, there were Little Blue Books. My remaining library of them is shown above, and below are a few with a paperback of the same period.
“Little Blue Books” was the popular name for a series of tiny publications printed on pulp paper, with slightly heavier paper covers, by E. Haldeman-Julius between 1919 and 1951. Emanuel Julius was the son of Russian immigrant Jews; he said his life was changed when, as a boy, he got hold of a 10 cent publication of Oscar Wilde’s grim poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol, and read it straight through oblivious to the freezing weather in which he sat. At that moment, he thought “how wonderful it would be if thousands of such booklets could be made available.”
All of us who were bookworms in childhood can identify with that experience. I don’t remember much of my youth but I can still recall exactly where I was when I read the end of To Kill A Mockingbird: sitting on a log in some neighbor’s front yard, having put the paperback in my pocket before setting out ostensibly to take the dog for a walk. And on a difficult bus trip to San Francisco, I buried myself in the Little Blue Book of Macbeth and came across the encouraging lines “Time and the hour/run through the roughest day.” I was on the bus with my parents, but seated separately; they were barely speaking to one another, having had another of the fights over my father’s extreme stay-at-home habits–this one followed by “Well, maybe you’d like to go to San Francisco (about 40 miles)?” “Driving and parking there is too awful.” and so on, until we ended up a silent trio on Greyhound.
I still have that 15-cent copy of Macbeth, and most of the other LBB’s that I acquired. The titles in this line included a lot of classics, not just because they were copyright-free, but because Haldemann-Julius had an agenda: a mixture of the classical, the progressive, and the useful.
Here’s a sampling of titles [my apologies for such a long list, but, I confess, when I started looking at the lists on the Penn State Axe Library site, I found it hard to stop selecting examples!] :
1a. The Ballad of Reading Jail, by Oscar Wilde. First Edition. [Cover title.] People’s Pocket Series.  [
1b. Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Second Edition. [Cover title.] People’s Pocket Series. 
3a. Walt Whitman’s Poems. [1920.]
17c. On Walking, by Henry David Thoreau. [1921.]
60a. Emerson’s Essays. [1920.]
90c. The Mikado, by W. S. Gilbert.
94a. Trial and Death of Socrates. [1920.]
95a. Confessions of an Opium Eater, by Thomas De Quincey. [1920.]
60a. Emerson’s Essays. [1920.]
140a. America’s Prison Hell, by Kate O’Hare. [1920.
1001. Tales of Italian Bandits [by] Washington Irving. [1927.]
1002. A Dictionary of Sea Terms [by] Frank Wells. [1926.]
1003. How to Think Logically [by] Leo Markun. [1926.]
1004. How to Save Money [by] J. George Frederick. [1926.]
1005. How to Enjoy the Orchestra [by] Isaac Goldberg. [1926.]
1006. A Book of Children’s Games [by] Grace Perkins. [1926.]
1008. The Origin of Religion [by] Joseph McCabe. [1926.]
1009. Typewriting Self Taught [by] Miriam Allen DeFord. [1926.]
1010. A Handbook for Amateur Magicians [by] George Milburn. [1926.]
1011. Pocket Dictionary, English-French, French-English [by] Vance Randolph. [1927.]
1014. The Best American Jokes, edited by Clement Wood. [1926.]
1017. Without Benefit of Clergy [by] Rudyard Kipling. [1926.]
1019. Bluebeard and His Eight Wives [by] Clement Wood. [1926.]
1020. Why I Am an Infidel [by] Luther Burbank. [1926.]
1021. Italian Self Taught [by] Isaac Goldberg. [1926.]
1022. An Odyssey of the North [by] Jack London. [1926.]
1162. Mystery Tales of Ghosts and Villains [by] Montague Rhodes James, Katherine Rickford [and] Charles Dickens.
1163. The Policewoman’s Love-Hungry Daughter and Other Stories of Chicago Life [by] Ben Hecht.
1177. Woman and the New Race [by] Havelock Ellis.
1178. The Chorus Girl and Her Lover’s Wife and Other Stories [by] Anton Chekhov.
1179. How to Make Desserts, Pies and Pastries [by] Mrs. Temple.
1182. How to Make Your Own Cosmetics [by] Gloria Goddard.
1183. How to Play Checkers [by] W. Patterson.
1185. The Weather: What Makes It and Why [by] Clifton L. Ray.
1186. A Handbook of the Rules of Golf, compiled by Harold Dix.
1188. Sex and the Garden of Eden Myth, a Collection of Essays on Christianity [by] Maynard.
1189. Pin Money: One Hundred Ways to Make Money at Home [by] Gloria Goddard.
1190. What Price Love? [by] Anton Chekhov.
1286. Do Human Beings Have Free Will? A Debate: Affirmative: Professor George Burman Foster, Negative: Clarence Darrow.
There are some patterns here: how-to and self-improvement, progressive politics and “free-thinking” about religion and society, and, of course, plenty of titles containing the words “love,” “sweetheart,” and “sex.” But there are also the large and small lights of Western Literature: Shakespeare, Goethe, Tolstoy, O. Henry, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Balzac, Ibsen, Mark Twain, Rabelais…there seems no end to Haldeman’s inclusiveness, until one thinks that a complete set of Little Blue Books would make the ideal accompaniment to a desert island existence. And cheap, too; in the beginning they retailed for a nickel; by the early 1960’s the price was all the way up to fifteen cents. So the 39 titles above would have run you a total of $1.95 at a nickel apiece, $5.85 at 15 cents.
Haldeman published some works he’d written himself, including
1287. Brann, Who Cracked Dull Heads [by] E. Haldeman-Julius.
1288. America’s Fakirs and Guides, Surveying the Leaders and Misleaders of Our Day [by] E. Haldeman-Julius.
The Brann of LBB 1287 was William Cowper Brann (1855-1898), an opinionated American journalist and newspaper owner who attacked aspects of religion, social pretense, and anything else that roused his ire. He died in Waco, Texas, after being shot in the back by a man who objected to his vituperative editorials about Baylor College; Brann turned and shot his attacker dead before walking to the jail, from which he was soon released. He died the next day.
I encountered Haldeman’s magnum-opus-in-small-pieces early in my teens. I was questioning religion and social conventions, fascinated with adventure tales, and lived with my nose in a book. Mostly I went to the library, but Little Blue Books were portable, full of surprises and oddities, and felt in some way personal. I must have bought them by mail, because I never remember seeing one in a bookstore or on a drugstore book rack. I now know that J. Edgar Hoover had mounted a campaign against Haldeman and his publications in the 1950’s and forced most bookstores to stop carrying them. The Little Blue Book series was, in its day, “edgy”: marked by progressive politics, including socialism, and consideration of forbidden topics like free love, homosexuality, evolution, birth control, and women’s rights. You can see that a cranky repressive guy like Hoover couldn’t allow such pollution of the American intellectual landscape.
Despite J. Edgar, 300 million Little Blue Books were published between 1919 and 1978, so I suppose those who blame our moral decline on things like Pokémon and gay marriage can just add Haldeman’s smart-alecky elitist smut to their list.
Great post very informative.