Legendary Paris bookshop reveals reading habits of illustrious clientele

Newly digitised lending cards from Shakespeare and Company uncover the choices of luminaries including Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein

A project to digitise records from the bookshop and lending library Shakespeare and Company offers a window into Paris during the jazz age, revealing the reading habits of literary titans including Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein.

The handwritten cards show that in 1925, decades before he wrote his novel The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway was borrowing Joshua Slocum’s memoir, Sailing Alone Around the World. And the records, scrawled by the shop’s clerks, chart how Stein matched intellectual pursuits with lighter reading including TH Crosfield’s historical romance A Love in Ancient Days, and Andrew Soutar’s fantasy Equality Island.

When Sylvia Beach opened Shakespeare and Company in 1919, English-language books were expensive and hard to find in Paris. Writers and artists who had flocked to the capital of literary modernism rushed to sign up for Beach’s library service. Along with Hemingway and Stein, writers from Aimé Césaire to Simone de Beauvoir, Jacques Lacan, Walter Benjamin and Joyce all became members – and would have been chased up for late returns with a drawing of an exasperated Shakespeare pulling out his hair.

Beach published Joyce’s controversial novel Ulysses in 1922, and kept the shop open until 1941, when she was forced to close after refusing to sell her last copy of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake to a Nazi officer. George Whitman opened a new incarnation of the shop in 1951, and Beach’s papers were acquired by Princeton University in 1964. The university has been working since 2014 to digitise records from the vast archive, which runs to 180 boxes, making them available to researchers online for the first time as part of the Shakespeare and Company project.

Joshua Kotin, an associate professor of English at Princeton and the project’s director, said that Beach was a “meticulous, obsessive record keeper”, and that “we are only now developing digital tools that will allow us to understand and realise the archive’s potential”.

“There are so many treasures left to be discovered. If you stack all the papers in the archive, it would be a 78-foot tower,” he said. “I’m still finding treasures – for example, just before the pandemic hit, I found a manuscript for George Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique (1924), which Antheil gave to Beach.”

One of Hemingway’s lending cards, Shakespeare and Company
One of Hemingway’s lending cards, Shakespeare and Company. Photograph: Shakespeare and Company

The records reveal that Hemingway borrowed more than 90 books, from PT Barnum’s autobiography to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which he checked out for eight days in September 1929 – the year DH Lawrence’s novel first appeared in France, 30 years before it was published in the US. In 1926, he borrowed a copy of Tom Jones’s Bull Fighting – the running of the bulls played a central part in his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises. He also bought a copy of his own novel A Farewell to Arms at the store.

“We want to understand genius,” Kotin said. “Does what Hemingway read help us understand what he wrote and why it is so great? It is also fascinating to connect our everyday practices – what we borrow from our local library, what’s in our Amazon cart – to the practices of people in the past. And there’s something illicit about learning about what and how people read – we’re learning about a very private, solitary activity.”

Some of the records, he said, “tell a surprising or poignant story”. Shortly before he died, Walter Benjamin borrowed two books: a German-English dictionary, and Lord Bacon’s Physical and Metaphysical Works. When France fell to the Germans, Benjamin fled Paris, but he killed himself in September 1940, after Spanish police told him he would be handed over to the Gestapo.

The archive makes unexpected connections, Kotin continued, with Aimé Césaire “borrowing and re-borrowing the poets of the Harlem Renaissance; Jacques Lacan borrowing an obscure book about Irish history because he’s reading Joyce’s Ulysses; Claude Cahun – under the name Mlle Lucie Schwob – reading Henry James; Gertrude Stein reading fantasy novels. So many people read so-called high-brow and low-brow work at the same time.”

The archive also sheds light on the lesser-known members of the library, Kotin added, who numbered in the thousands. “I love the member Alice Killen. She was the most active member of the library. She borrowed hundreds of books over 18 years,” he said. “The project allows us to learn about and remember these people.”

The American Library Association requires libraries to destroy patron records to protect their privacy; Shakespeare and Company was not affiliated with the ALA, and Beach kept everything. “She probably should have destroyed her records,” Kotin said, “but I’m happy that she didn’t.”


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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