James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) was the most frequently borrowed book at Shakespeare and Company, Sylvia Beach’s bookshop and lending library in interwar Paris. Joyce’s collection of stories, Dubliners (1914), was the second, and his play Exiles (1918), was the thirteenth, tied with his masterpiece, Ulysses (1922), which Shakespeare and Company published. Joyce was at the center of Beach’s world. “I worshipped James Joyce,” she recalls in her memoirs.1
But Joyce was not Shakespeare and Company’s most frequently borrowed author. That distinction belongs to D. H. Lawrence, author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), a book Beach refused to publish in 1927. “It was sad refusing Lawrence’s Lady,” she recalls; but “I didn’t admire this work” and “I didn’t want to get a name as a publisher of erotica.”2 The novel was eventually published in Florence in 1928 and Paris in 1929, and became Lawrence’s third most frequently borrowed book at Shakespeare and Company, after Women in Love (1920) and Sons and Lovers (1913).
The Shakespeare and Company Project uses lending library cards from Beach’s papers at Princeton University to illuminate the borrowing practices of lending library members. For this article, we’ve used the cards to create ten top ten lists. (The Project has cards for about 650 members. To learn more about the relation between the cards and the lending library membership as whole, see our article, “The Shakespeare and Company Lending Library Cards in Context.”) The lists reveal that books by Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf, W. Somerset Maugham, and Dorothy Richardson were all borrowed more frequently than books by Joyce. (Granted all five authors were more prolific than Joyce.) The lists also reveal that Joyce was the most frequently borrowed author who was also a member—in addition to being the author of the two most frequently borrowed books. Who was the second most frequently borrowed author-member? Ernest Hemingway. Did the chance of running into Joyce or Hemingway at Shakespeare and Company increase interest in their books? Perhaps. But they are the only two author-members in the top ten authors.
What was the most frequently borrowed periodical? The New Statesman and Nation, the weekly magazine of politics and culture, was borrowed more frequently than the three top modernist journals combined—The Criterion, The Dial, and transition. The most frequently borrowed book in translation? A tie: Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way (1913, translated 1922) and Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain (1924, translated 1927). Mann was the most frequently borrowed author in translation—with Sigmund Freud and Fyodor Dostoevsky tied for second.
What was the least frequently borrowed book? According to the lending library cards, over 2,000 books were borrowed only once. But at least one book does not seem to have been borrowed at all. On March 8, 1939, Cyrille Arvanon was about to borrow Aristocracy and Justice (1915) by the Christian apologist and former Princeton lecturer Paul Elmer More. But Arvanon changed his mind. On his card, Beach’s assistant crossed out the title and wrote another in its place: New Testament—likely Sherwood Anderson’s A New Testament (1927), but possibly the New Testament itself. Aristocracy and Justice does not appear on any other cards.
Which books were returned most quickly? Michael Sadleir’s These Foolish Things (1936), Hugh Walpole’s Fortitude (1913), and Booth Tarkington’s Women (1925) were all, on average, borrowed for less than three days. Did members fail to finish them or devour them quickly? Fortitude and Women are both over 400 pages long! One member, Alice Killen, borrowed all three books repeatedly—perhaps to try, yet again, to read them, or to read and re-read them: we can’t be sure. Robert Frost’s Selected Poems tops the list of books that were checked out for the longest amount of time—an average of seventy-seven days. To create these two lists, we excluded books that were borrowed fewer than five times and books with incomplete borrowing dates; for the second list, we also excluded books that were borrowed for over a year. On January 10, 1931, Joyce returned seven books that he had borrowed in the 1920s!
Perhaps the biggest revelations from the top ten lists concern the borrowing practices of female and male members. The lists help make two things clear. First, Shakespeare and Company was a community of women. Women were responsible for nearly 70% of the total borrows—14,422 to 6,096. Second, men rarely borrowed books by women. (To calculate these lists, we excluded five accounts shared by husbands and wives, and one shared by a mother and son.) The top ten list of books borrowed by women resembles the top ten overall. The most notable difference: Richardson displaces Joyce at the top. But the top ten list for men is significantly different: most dramatically, it includes only one book by a woman. Mansfield’s Bliss (1920) is tied for ninth with the multivolume Cambridge History of English of Literature (1908 – 1912), Lawrence’s Women in Love, and Hemingway’s Men without Women (1927). No Richardson. No Woolf. Men without women indeed.
The borrowing practices of lending library members—both women and men—do not reflect contemporary bestseller lists or our own standard conceptions of early twentieth-century literature. Dorothy Richardson’s Pointed Roofs (1915) was borrowed more frequently than either Norman Douglas’s South Wind (1917) or Margeret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936), both bestsellers. But South Wind and Gone with the Wind were borrowed more frequently than either F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) or Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926). Do these examples reveal a middle ground between modernist literature and mass culture, or the relative ease of enjoying both? Or do they reveal the incoherence of the categories?
To spark such questions, we present our series of top ten lists. We invite you to make your own, using either the book search or the data export. Note that the events listed in the book search results include non-borrowing events—gifts, loans, the occasional purchase. For our top ten lists, we counted only borrows. Share your discoveries with us.
This article uses data from Shakespeare and Company Project Dataset: Lending Library Members, Books, Events, version 1.0. We have updated the data about Ulysses—one borrowing event in the data export should have been attributed to Stuart Gilbert’s James Joyce’s Ulysses (1930) instead of Joyce’s novel. We have also corrected some publication dates and translator names.
1. Sylvia Beach, Shakespeare and Company (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 34.
2. Ibid, 93.
Cite this document
“Shakespeare and Company: Top Ten Lists.” Shakespeare and Company Project, version 1.5.6. Center for Digital Humanities, Princeton University. November 16, 2020. http://shakespeareandco.princeton.edu/analysis/2020/11/shakespeare-and-company-top-ten-lists/. Accessed November 26, 2022.