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This new database shows the reading habits of major 20th-century authors.

Aaron Robertson

May 8, 2020, 3:46pm

When Sylvia Beach, the New Jersey native who published Ulysses and opened Paris’ Shakespeare and Co. (“the most famous bookstore in the world”), died in 1962, Princeton University purchased and catalogued her papers.

This trove of materials reveals, among other things, the reading preferences of some of the 20th century’s most famous writers, including Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Simone de Beauvoir, and many, many others (the store had thousands of patrons, and Beach kept the lending cards for about 650 of them). The recent digitization of Beach’s papers has made this information easily accessible for the first time.

The Shakespeare and Company Project, a six-year-long collaborative effort between Princeton University librarians, digital humanists, and students, has a rolling release beginning this year.

It’s insanely cool. You’ll be able to learn not only which books and magazines scores of authors checked out or purchased, and when they did it, but also where they lived in Paris, how the reading material circulated over time, the notes booksellers recorded, and more. The database will be updated as the project leads learn more.

Poke around the membership list and you’ll find big names, sure. You’ll also come across 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 Southern California.

Here are what some people were reading (keep in mind that the entries here are selective and by no means comprehensive).


Names you may recognize…

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), German philosopher, cultural critic, and essayist

Feb. 23rd, 1940: Cassell’s German and English Dictionary
April 25th, 1940: Physical and Metaphysical Works, including the Advancement of Learning and Novum Organum, Francis Bacon

Aimé Césaire (1913-2008), Afro-Caribbean author and founder of the Négritude movement

Feb. 29th, 1936: The Weary Blues, Langston Hughes
Dec. 21st, 1937: Color, Countee Cullen
Jan. 5th, 1938: Spring in New Hampshire and Other Poems, Claude McKay & Cane, Jean Toomer

Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), French writer, philosopher, and feminist social theorist 

April 12th, 1937: The Years, Virginia Woolf
April 17th, 1937: Absalom! Absalom!, William Faulkner
Aug. 29th, 1940: Native Son, Richard Wright

Jean Genet (1910-1986), French writer and political activist

Aug. 23rd, 1935: The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces, Henry James
Nov. 5th, 1935: The Tempest, William Shakespeare
March 15th, 1937: The Psychology of the Poet Shelley, Edward Carpenter and George Barnefield

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), American author and Nobel laureate

Oct. 8th, 1925: Mammonart: An Essay in Economic Interpretation, Upton Sinclair
Oct. 14th, 1925: Sailing Alone Around the World, Joshua Slocum
Jan. 30th, 1926: In Our Time, Ernest Hemingway (lol)

James Joyce (1882-1941), Irish author and literary critic

Dec. 1920: Three Lives, Gertrude Stein
March 3rd, 1923: Ireland: Its Myths and Legends, Joseph Mary Flood
July 11th, 1925: Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions, Frank Harris


And perhaps a few you might not know…

Louis Aragon (1897-1982), a leading French surrealist poet

Though the exact year isn’t known, the two books Aragon is recorded as having borrowed are Joyce’s Exiles and Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man.

Marcelle Auclair (1899-1983), French biographer and co-founder of the fashion magazine Marie Claire 

July 17th, 1931: A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf

Alden Brooks (1882-1964), American writer best-known for his suggestion that Shakespeare’s works were written by Sir Edward Dyer

July 19th, 1939: Ulysses, James Joyce

Horace Cayton (1903-1970), American sociologist known for Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City

Sep. 3rd, 1935: Bohemian Literary and Social Life in Paris, Sisley Huddleston
Sep. 11th, 1935: As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner
September 14th, 1935: Innocents Abroad, or the New Pilgrims’ Progress, Mark Twain

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