The Shakespeare and Company Project Digitizes the Records of the Famous Bookstore, Showing the Reading Habits of the Lost Generation

Great writ­ers don’t come out of nowhere, even if some of them might end up there. They grow in gar­dens tend­ed by oth­er writ­ers, read­ers, edi­tors, and pio­neer­ing book­sellers like Sylvia Beach, founder and pro­pri­etor of Shake­speare and Com­pa­ny. Beach opened the Eng­lish-lan­guage shop in Paris in 1919. Three years lat­er, she pub­lished James Joyce’s Ulysses, “a feat that would make her—and her book­shop and lend­ing library—famous,” notes Prince­ton University’s Shake­speare and Com­pa­ny Project. (Infa­mous as well, giv­en the obscen­i­ty charges against the nov­el in the U.S.)

Just as the pub­li­ca­tion of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl put Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights at the cen­ter of the Beat move­ment, so Joyce’s mas­ter­piece made Shake­speare and Com­pa­ny a des­ti­na­tion for aspir­ing Mod­ernists.

The shop was already “the meet­ing place for a com­mu­ni­ty of expa­tri­ate writ­ers and artists now known as the Lost Gen­er­a­tion.” Along with Joyce, there gath­ered Ernest Hem­ing­way, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein, all of whom not only bought books but bor­rowed them and left a hand­writ­ten record of their read­ing habits.

Through a large-scale dig­i­ti­za­tion project of the Sylvia Beach papers at Prince­ton, the Shake­speare and Com­pa­ny Project will “recre­ate the world of the Lost Gen­er­a­tion. The Project details what mem­bers of the lend­ing library read and where they lived, and how expa­tri­ate life changed between the end of World War I and the Ger­man Occu­pa­tion of France.” Dur­ing the thir­ties, Beach began to cater more to French-speak­ing intel­lec­tu­als. Among lat­er log­books we’ll find the names Aimé Césaire, Jacques Lacan, and Simone de Beau­voir. Beach closed the store for good in 1941, the sto­ry goes, rather than sell a Nazi offi­cer a copy of Finnegans Wake.

Princeton’s “trove of mate­ri­als reveals, among oth­er things,” writes Lithub, “the read­ing pref­er­ences of some of the 20th century’s most famous writ­ers,” it’s true. But not only are there many famous names; the library logs also record “less famous but no less inter­est­ing fig­ures, too, from a respect­ed French physi­cist to the woman who start­ed the musi­col­o­gy pro­gram at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia.” Shake­speare and Com­pa­ny became the place to go for thou­sands of French and expat patrons in Paris dur­ing some of the city’s most leg­en­dar­i­ly lit­er­ary years.

“Eng­lish-lan­guage books are expen­sive,” if you’ve arrived in the city in the 1920s, the Project explains—“five to twen­ty times the price of French books.” Eng­lish-lan­guage hold­ings at oth­er libraries are lim­it­ed. Read­ers, and soon-to-be famous writ­ers, go to Shake­speare and Com­pa­ny to bor­row a copy of Moby Dick or pick up the lat­est New York­er.

You find Shake­speare and Com­pa­ny on a nar­row side street, just off the Car­refour de l’Odéon. You step inside. The room is filled with books and mag­a­zines. You rec­og­nize a framed por­trait of Edgar Allan Poe. You also rec­og­nize a few framed Whit­man man­u­scripts. Sylvia Beach, the own­er, intro­duces her­self and tells you that her aunt vis­it­ed Whit­man in Cam­den, New Jer­sey and saved the man­u­scripts from the waste­bas­ket. Yes, this is the place for you.

The lend­ing library had dif­fer­ent mem­ber­ship plans (you can learn about them here) and kept care­ful records with codes indi­cat­ing the sta­tus of each bor­row­er. These records are still being dig­i­tized and the Project is ongo­ing. It does not offi­cial­ly launch until next month. But at the moment, you can: “Search the lend­ing library mem­ber­shipBrowse the lend­ing library cardsRead about join­ing the lend­ing libraryDown­load a pre­lim­i­nary export of Project data. In June, you will be able to search and browse the lend­ing library’s books, track the cir­cu­la­tion of your favorite novels—and dis­cov­er new ones.”

See how these lit­er­ary com­mu­ni­ties shaped and reshaped them­selves around what would become “the most famous book­store in the world.”

via Lithub

Relat­ed Con­tent:

James Joyce Picked Drunk­en Fights, Then Hid Behind Ernest Hem­ing­way

7 Tips From Ernest Hem­ing­way on How to Write Fic­tion

Gertrude Stein Gets a Snarky Rejec­tion Let­ter from Pub­lish­er (1912)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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