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Clever, Very: Joshua Kotin

Blacka and white photo of a man and a woman stand in the threshold of a building, with the street in the background. On the left is a woman, Sylvia Beach, facing partly away from the viewer and looking towards the man, James Joyce, on the right. James Joyce, on the right, is turned towards Beach and partly to the viewer and is looking directly into the camera.For our latest “Clever, Very” interview, Joshua Kotin at Princeton University talked to us about the Mapping Expatriate Paris: The Shakespeare and Company Lending Library Project (MEP) project. The MEP, which we previously described in one of our blog posts, is a digital humanities project that digitizes the extensive records Sylvia Beach kept for her Shakespeare and Company bookshop and lending library. MEP provides insight into Paris as a site of artistic and intellectual exchange during the interwar period.

James Joyce Quarterly: In the Mapping Expatriate Paris project, you’ve been digitizing the records kept by Sylvia Beach for Shakespeare and Company. Out of all of the bookstores and lending libraries in Paris at the time, why do you think Shakespeare and Company and by extension Beach became such important figures for the Lost Generation?

Joshua Kotin: There are at least two answers to this question. First, Shakespeare and Company catered directly to the English-speaking avant-garde in interwar Paris. Beach knew her customers; she opened the bookshop and lending library in an ideal location, and stocked the right books. She was also an incredibly smart and generous person; her correspondence reveals her importance as an intellectual and friend. Second, she published Ulysses!

JJQ: How has this project evolved from its conception to how it is now?

JK: MEP grew out of a graduate seminar I taught at Princeton in 2013 on Ezra Pound. During a visit to Rare Books and Special Collections at Princeton’s Firestone Library, Jesse McCarthy, a student in the seminar, suggested that the Shakespeare and Company lending library cards would make a great dataset for a mapping project about interwar Paris. Two years later, McCarthy and I began to seriously reckon with the project’s potential. We invited Clifford Wulfman, Digital Initiatives Coordinator at Firestone, to join our research team, and I started to work my way through the 180 archival boxes in the Beach Papers. I soon discovered Beach’s logbooks and established the conceptual framework for the project. The original mapping project now complements an in-depth investigation of the lending library’s membership and the circulation of the lending library’s books.

JJQ: What has been the most unexpected thing you’ve discovered while working on MEP?

JK: I was naive, but I didn’t realize how many people were part of the Shakespeare and Company community, and how many non-Anglophone writers and artists patronized the bookshop and lending library. There are hundreds of as-yet unidentified library members—and there are a significant number of surprisingly well-known names in the membership lists: Jacques Lacan, Simone de Beauvoir, Walter Benjamin, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Nathalie Sarraute, and George Oppen. I’ve been also surprised by the range of books and magazines that circulated.

JJQ: How do you think digitizing these records affect how we think about modernism and Joyce?

JK: I think MEP has the potential to change how we understand modernism in three overlapping ways. First, it can provide a more exact and comprehensive portrait of the world represented in countless memoirs about the period—and in films such as Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. Second, MEP can illuminate how that world changed from 1919, when Beach opened Shakespeare and Company, until the early 1940s, when she was forced to close the bookshop and lending library during the German occupation of France. Third, MEP can reveal what books circulated within that world—who read what and when. For example, MEP will allow us to determine who borrowed Joyce’s work and what other books they borrowed with Joyce’s work. We will also be able to identify popular books now lost to literary history. (Is it relevant that Charles Morgan’s Sparkenbroke was borrowed more frequently than Ernest Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms?) As MEP develops we may begin to encode and analyze material in the Beach Papers related to the production and distribution of Ulysses.

JJQ: Where do you see the field of digital humanities going in the future? Are there any recent developments that you are excited about?

JK: Most DH projects do one of two things. They either make difficult to access and fragile materials searchable and available to the public—for example, The Modernist Journals Project, The Emily Dickinson Archive, and W.E.B. Du Bois Papers—or they create and analyze big datasets—for example, Chicago Text Lab, CESTA, and .txtLAB. MEP does both—albeit with a comparatively modest dataset. We hope to see more projects that link the aims of libraries with the aims of social scientists and humanists developing quantitative approaches to literary criticism and literary history.

This interview was conducted by Marie Sartain via email November 17-30, 2016.