What The Lost Generation Read

Shakespeare and Company is a legendary bookstore located in the heart of Paris. It was founded by Sylvia Beach in 1919 and during the 1920s and 1930s, was the hub of a generation of legendary “expatriate” writers in Paris, known as “The Lost Generation”. This generation was depicted in the fictional Woody Allen movie “Midnight In Paris”. Shakespeare and Company came to prominence for this set of writers because she published James Joyce’s “Ulysses” in 1922.

Similar to other recent efforts from major museums around the world, Princeton University is taking the full collection of Beach’s Papers and digitizing them, opening up a fascinating window into the operations of Shakespeare and Company that includes the membership rolls of Shakespeare’s lending library. These records detail the books and literature that some of the most legendary authors themselves borrowed from the this iconic bookstore.

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.

Josh Jones, Open Culture

This is such a unique window into the minds of some of the most influential people of that era (and history) and the types of literary work that influenced them. It is as well a view into a diverse cross section of individuals from around the world who were members of the Shakespeare Lending Library, many whom were not as famous. Not only can you see what books and literature they checked out of Shakespeare, but it also details where the thousands of members lived over the years that they were part of the Lending Library membership rolls.

Hemingway with Sylvia Beach (to his right). Photo: Collection Lausat/Keyston-France/Cam

For example, the Ernest Hemingway profile page details where he lived in Paris (three places including 6 rue Férou, 113 rue Notre Dame de Champs, and 69 rue Froidevaux) as well where he lived as Spain, Switzerland and Cuba. It details when he was a member (off and on between 1921 and 1938). Then, we get to the good stuff, as it also details what books Hemingway checked out, and we have to assume, he read. They include works by William Butler Yeats, Gertrude Stein, Upton Sinclair, George Orwell, and Eugene O’Neill to name a few. He even bought some of his own work from Shakespeare, which somehow seems ‘on brand’.

Hemingway’s “Lending Library” card from 1926-27

Other famous folks that were members include James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Just a tantalizing snapshot into one of the most interesting periods of time in Paris and the world!

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