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Bestsellers of the past
Very beautiful, horrid and sweet stories

Sweet and sad stories about an innocent martyress Genovefa, published in Estonian in the forties of the 19th century, can be considered the first Estonian bestsellers. This internationally well-known plot was born in the 17th century France, from where it spread via German translations to our country, too. Jenowewa ellust; üks wägga armas ja halle luggeminne wannematele ja lastele (About the Life of Genovefa; a Very Sweet and Sad Reading for Parents and Children), a booklet by a parish clerk Caspar Franz Lorenzsonn, was first published in Estonian in 1839. Already the first adaption became a bestseller; in its time, it was even manually copied. In 1841 even two versions of the story of Genovefa were published: Lorenzsonn published a new, revised and improved edition of its book and a schoolteacher Johann Thomasson published his Jenowewa. Üks kaunis ja halle luggeminne (Genovefa. A Beautiful and Sad Reading). A year later Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald fell into the rank of the translators of Genovefa's story into Estonian. The Estonian national epic, compiled by him, could not compete with his Genovefa's story in the terms of success; nine editions of the latter were published in 45 years. Further translations of the story grew more and more capacious: Täielik Jenowewa elulugu (The Complete Story of Genovefa) and Kõige täielikum Jenowewa elulugu (The Most Complete Story of Genovefa) were published. The stories of Genovefa were published up to the first decade of the 20th century.

Other sad stories about unfortunate Hirlanda, patient Helena and pious May Rose, worthy of the story of Genovefa, gained popularity, too. An Estonian writer Eduard Vilde has written about his childhood reading experiences as following: "I tender-heartedly listened how my mother or a valet from the mansion house, who loved stories, read the stories of Genovefa, Hirlanda, Griseldi and May Rose and Türgi hobuse muna (The Egg of the Turkish Horse) to a small audience." From the memoirs of a politician and an author Mihkel Martna we can read: "I bought myself Apollonius at the fair, Genovefa I already had at home. How many dozen times I read them both, always with new passion, sometimes several times a day – that I cannot tell."

Concurrently with the first translations of Genovefa's story Estonian readers also became acquainted with the adventures of Robinson. The Estonian-language robinsonade was initiated by J. Thomasson, a translator of Genovefa's story into Estonian, with his book Weikise Hanso luggu tühja sare peäl (The Story of Little Hans on a Deserted Island), published in 1839. This booklet has little to do with Daniel Defoe's famous novel. Some years later Norema Robinsoni ello ja juhtumised ühhe tühja sare peal (The Life and Adventures of Young Robinson on a Deserted Island) was published; Heinrich Gottlieb Lorenzsonn, an elder brother of the translator of Genovefa's story, had translated it. Eduard Bornhöhe, who had already become famous for his bestselling historical adventure stories, translated the story of Robinson in the last decade of the century; it gained wide popularity. Even today there is a large number of sympathisers to the adventures of Robinson; its recent Estonian edition was published some years ago.

In the second half of the century the boom of historical adventure stories began. Fight for freedom was especially popular. The North American Civil War contributed to the circulation of books treating slavery and slaves; books about Indians were also published. By the end of the century the publishing of bandit novels launched out.

Collections of myths and fairy tales became popular. When Kreutzwald initiated in 1860s the publishing of folk tales, many authors followed his example. Wiis kentsakat ennemuistest jutto (Five Curious Ancient Tales) by Mats Kirsel, a translator and an adapter, was published in several editions (first print in 1862). Martin Sohberg, a village poet, and Matthias Johann Eisen, an enthusiastic collector of folk tales, were especially productive publishers of story and poetry collections.

Songbooks - poems' collections were good sellers. More popular collections were published in a number of large editions. Nevertheless, they are rarities today.

Old children's books are also rarities today. A book of verse, Eesti Laste-Rõõm (Estonian Children's Delight), published in 1865 by Johann Voldemar Jannsen, a favourite author of Estonian peasants, should be highlighted among those. This first Estonian secular book of verse for children is, considering its date of publication, richly illustrated with tinted lithographs.

Colour book covers emerged in the beginning of the 1880s, when the publishing of a series of popular books, Eesti Rahwa-Biblioteek (The Library of Estonian People), was initiated. A number of already mentioned bestsellers were published in this series.

In addition to belletristic popular literature, books of dream interpretations, all kinds of "prophets" and "foretellers" were, and have remained up to the present day, good sellers.

If there was no other printed matter in a farmhouse than literature containing the Word of God, there surely also was a calendar or two. Calendars were the publications, from which the Estonian people spelled their first secular tales.

National Library of Estonia