The first famous English language independent bookstore on the Left Bank of Paris was started by Sylvia Beach in 1919. The bookstore immediately attracted English-speaking readers, both expatriates and French. It also became a gathering place for aspiring writers who visited the bookstore to find community. Literature owes Sylvia Beach a lot for the community she built in this beloved bookstore.
In 1941, due to the German occupation of Paris, Sylvia’s bookstore closed and never reopened. However, in 1954 George Whitman opened a new independent bookstore, and named it Shakespeare & Co. (with her permission) in tribute to Sylvia Beach and the community the original bookstore built in Paris. This iteration of the shop is still family-owned, and is run by George’s daughter Sylvia Whitman and her partner today.
I recently visited Shakespeare & Co. and was inspired to create this Shakespeare & Co. reading list, featuring some of the famous writers who have been a part of the bookstore’s history.
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So, if you knew me at 21, you’d know a visit to Shakespeare & Company is a a bucket list item for me. I wrote my thesis on expatriate writers in Paris — so to be where the lot hung out was… 😍a moment • Sylvia Beach, literature owes you so much. Not just community, but like James Joyce, too. 😂 . . .
Three Lives by Gertrude Stein
Gertrude Stein is most known as a well-respected literary critic and theorist who advised many of the other writers on this list, most famously Hemingway. Three Lives is her first book. It is about the ordinary lives of three working-class women.
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway wrote this novel while living in Paris. This novel takes place in 1920s Paris (and Pamplona, Spain) and is the quintessential novel about the American and British expatriates living in Europe between the World Wars. It features Hemingway’s famously spare writing style, and is the book that launched Hemingway’s career as a classic of the 20th century.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald moved to France in 1924 to focus on his writing, and in 1925 he published his best known novel, The Great Gatsby. It’s, of course, the story of the gin-loving, Jazz Age flappers of 1920s New York.
Ulysses by James Joyce
Parts of Ulysses were first published as a serial piece, but it was actually Sylvia Beach who published Ulysses in full in 1922. Ulysses follows a single day in the life of Leopold Bloom in Dublin in 1904.
Nightwood by Djuna Barnes
Djuna Barnes moved to Paris in the 1920s and was a close friend of Sylvia Beach, Gertrude Stein, and Stein’s partner Alice B. Toklas. Nightwood is about a woman living in Paris in the 1920s, who is married to a man and falls in love with a woman.
The following writers were part of the next generation of Shakespeare & Co., when it was owned by the Whitman family:
Howl & Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg
Much like The Sun Also Rises was an anthem of the Lost Generation and The Great Gatsby of the flapper generation, Howl & Other Poems was quintessential of The Beat Generation. The collection was published by City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco in 1956, but was immediately challenged by U.S. Customs and the San Francisco police for being “obscene.” This lead to a famous freedom of speech court case to have the book ban lifted. When Ginsberg traveled in Paris he stayed at the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore.
Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar
Julio Cortázar was an Argentinian writer who moved to Paris in 1951. His best known novel, Hopscotch, was written then, and it also features an Argentinian writer living in Paris, and the writer’s other bohemian and intellectual friends.
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
James Baldwin moved in Paris in 1948, and was part of the post-war community of expatriates that hung out at Shakespeare & Co. Giovanni’s Room takes place in a 1950s Paris that is full of expatriates as well. It’s the story of a young man who is engaged to a woman, but carries on a long affair with a male Italian bartender.
Black Boy by Richard Wright
Upon the publication of Black Boy, Richard Wright was invited to Paris on a literary tour, and immediately fell in love with France and the expatriate community he met there. Black Boy is Wright’s autobiography about being a Black man in the American south. He was criticized by some of his supporters for abandoning the civil rights fight in the United States to move to Paris, but he very much loved the beauty and attitude of Paris, and lived in France for the rest of his life.
I hope you enjoyed this list, especially if you’re planning a trip to Paris and Shakespeare & Co. yourself! If you want more recommendations that celebrate France, check out Book Riot’s Literary Tourism post on bookish towns in France.