Books | May 26, 2020 12:01 pm

Hemingway’s Reading Habits Revealed After Parisian Library’s Records Digitized

Patron records from Shakespeare and Co tell us what some of the great American modernists were reading in Paris

hemingway books
Hemingway's bookshelf in Havana.
Sven Creutzmann/Mambo photo/Getty Images

Back in September 1929, Ernest Hemingway checked out a copy of Lady Chatterleys Lover in Paris, decades before most of his American friends would get their hands on it. Three years earlier, the great ex-pat novelist dove into Tom Jones’ Bull Fighting, reading material that may have informed Hemingway’s 1926 classic The Sun Also Rises.

This insight into Hemingway’s reading habits comes to us courtesy of the recently digitized records of famed Parisian bookstore and lending library Shakespeare and Company. The store’s records have been digitized and made widely available for the first time thanks to a project led by the Center of Digital Humanities at Princeton University, giving scholars and fans a look at the reading habits of various literary greats among the store’s clientele.

The Guardian‘s Alison Flood shared some insight gathered from the store’s records of Hemingway and contemporaries including James Joyce and Gertrude Stein.

Opened in 1919 by Sylvia Beach, Shakespeare and Co attracted the literary greats of the English-speaking world as one of few places in Paris where English-language books were readily available and reasonably priced. The shop remained open until 1941, when Beach was forced to close after refusing to sell her last copy of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake to a Nazi officer.

The newly digitized records reveal that Hemingway borrowed more than 90 books from Shakespeare and Co., where he also purchased a copy of his own novel A Farewell to Arms. 

The records also reveal interesting and sometimes surprising literary habits of the greats, such as Gertrude Stein’s affinity for fantasy novels or Jacques Lacan’s interest in Irish history while reading Joyce’s Ulysses.

While the American Library Association requires libraries to destroy patron records to protect their privacy, Shakespeare and Company was not affiliated with the ALA, leaving Beach free to keep all records.

“She probably should have destroyed her records,” said Joshua Kotin, associate professor of English at Princeton and the project’s director, “but I’m happy that she didn’t.”

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