The free book being handed out on Zurich’s Helvetiaplatz, 1971.
The free book being handed out on Zurich’s Helvetiaplatz, 1971. Photo: Eric Bachmann

Bringing literature to the masses

In 1971, two young creatives captured the world’s attention with a free book. They distributed the work throughout German-speaking Switzerland with the backing of prominent literary figures.

Dominik Landwehr

Dominik Landwehr

Dominik Landwehr is a cultural and media scientist and lives in Winterthur.

In 1971, a free book was handed out to passers-by on Switzerland’s streets and squares. 40,000 copies of the anthology were published, featuring contributions from scores of contemporary authors. Though they may have been giving it away for free, the book was anything but a ‘cheap’ product. The project was the brainchild of two young creative minds, Theo Ruff and Peter K. Wehrli, who launched it with the aim of democratising literature by bringing it closer to broader sections of society. But much ground had to be covered before the book was finally ready for distribution. The journey had begun with a poster campaign by Theo Ruff. Peter K. Wehrli spotted one of Ruff’s posters in a gallery and immediately joined forces with him. Their original idea was to encourage young writers to submit texts, but most of the 300 submissions they received were disappointing. “The majority came from young people, aged 15 to 25. Back then, we branded these texts ‘world-weary outpourings’”, recalls Peter K. Wehrli. The pair therefore decided to approach more established authors, like Peter Bichsel, Max Frisch and Adolf Muschg.
Wehrli (left) and Ruff, the two men who dreamed up the free book.
Wehrli (left) and Ruff, the two men who dreamed up the free book. Photo: Eric Bachmann
They received an extremely positive response, with 49 of the 50 names they wrote to agreeing to support the project. The one exception was Friedrich Dürrenmatt, from whom nothing was heard. And so, the pages intended for his submission were left blank as Ruff and Wehrli, having firmly expected the eminent writer to take part, had left it too late to arrange another contribution. However, there can be no suggestion of a deliberate snub: the writer had simply forgotten to reply to their enquiry. Happily, others delivered as promised. The two instigators were particularly proud of Hugo Loetscher’s text. The Zurich-based writer and journalist had made a film in 1964 for Swiss television about Portugal – at a time when the country was suffering under the dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. The documentary Ach, Herr Salazar (“Oh, Mr Salazar”) was a plea for freedom in the country. When the Portuguese embassy learned that the film was to be screened on Swiss TV, it stepped in and complained. The film was pulled from the schedules by the broadcaster’s top management shortly before it was due to be aired.
Friedrich Dürrenmatt (right) with publisher Marc Lamunière, 1958.
Friedrich Dürrenmatt (right) with publisher Marc Lamunière, 1958. Swiss National Museum / ASL
Hugo Loetscher made the text of the controversial film available for the book. Here is an extract: “Oh Mr Salazar, you will soon have been in government for 40 years. Anyone who serves their country for that long, must love it. Their names are many, as many as there are landmarks, sights worth seeing. But this is your landmark, Mr Salazar. The Fort of King Luís I, from the 17th century, holding political prisoners from the 20th.” Following this scandal, Loetscher was no longer able to set foot in Portugal until the Carnation Revolution of 1974 brought Salazar’s dictatorship to an end.
The free book campaign met with an enthusiastic response. For example, after hearing about it in a radio interview, a haulage contractor made one of his lorries available for a reading on Zurich’s Helvetiaplatz. There were even reports about the 96-page book in the international press: the San Francisco Chronicle published an article entitled “A Swiss book named ‘gratis’” on 25 November 1971, and three months later the International Herald Tribune followed suit with “No money can buy this Swiss book”. It was such a success that a new print run of 4,000 copies was published three years later – this time, the new book contained around 60 texts.
TV report on the free book (in German). SRF
It may have been revolutionary at the time, but since the end of the 1990s it has become a recurring PR stunt in the book trade. Free books are now used to encourage people to read. And naturally also to persuade them to buy books. In other words: same means, different end.
The photos of the action «free book» were taken by Swiss photographer Eric Bachmann (1940–2019). He realised numerous reports in Switzerland and internationally and photographed countless 20th century figures such as Muhammad Ali, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Bob Marley, Astrid Lindgren and many more. His archive is kept in Kaiserstuhl and part of it is accessible online at

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