The Modernist Review #32: Book History & Networks

2 August 2021

Have you experienced the joy of returning to your favourite bookshop yet? Flicking through pages to decide what to choose, asking a bookseller for a recommendation, with the smell of paper and possibly the clink of teaspoons and the whir of a coffee machine from the cafe at the back. Maybe you listened to ‘coffee shop sound effects’ on YouTube while you read during lockdown – a lot of that reading was probably on a screen, as librarians (our unsung heroes) rushed to provide eBooks, and publishers limited review copies to digital rather than print. It’s been a strange year for books, and it’s made us here at the Modernist Review leaf back through the pages of book history to a century ago, and think deeply about the networks in which we read and exchange books. 

Networks by other names have always been important to modernism and modernist studies: coteries, salons, groups, sets. But it is not until more recently that modernist networks have taken new shape as nebulae rather than hierarchies, demonstrating symbiotic relationships rather than unidirectional distributions of knowledge. Situating creators and consumers within immediate and distant structures has been central to book history studies since its inception (Robert Darnton’s communications circuit ever looms large) – it is here, revelling in the stuff of books that this issue of the Modernist Review finds itself. This issue reveals networks of modernisms in innovative ways, from data-driven research through to archival retrievals.

When one imagines a bookseller in the modernist period recommending a book to a customer, Sylvia Beach probably comes to mind: we imagine Americans in Paris following the map on her leaflets to Shakespeare and Company to find the latest cutting edge titles in English. In Matthew Chambers’ London and the Modernist Bookshop, however – reviewed here by Nick Hubble – we find a different story. Chambers brings to life the story of David Archer’s bookshop at No. 4 Parton Street, home of the Parton Press, next door to Lawrence & Wishart publishers, close to Meg’s Cafe and, by 1934, within a kilometre of fifty other bookshops. Following the next stage of the book lifecycle, from the shop to bringing the books home, our very own Emily Bell invites us to the shelves of James Joyce’s library. In her article on the contemporary bestsellers that he owned, Emily describes the fascinating project that she is involved with at the University of Antwerp, which is digitally reconstructing Joyce’s library during his lifetime. Far beyond the remit of a single-author study, Emily shows us how studying the fine details of an author’s reading can ‘illuminate the large-scale reading network in which [they] participated’. 

Keeping us among the libraries and shelves of readers of the early-twentieth-century, Andrew Frayn turns to a more specific type of book and aims to interrogate an idea that most of us might have taken for granted all this time: was there a war books boom? Andrew (like Emily and her fellow researchers) is also working on a collaborative, data-driven project, and in his article he traces some fascinating lines to ‘make evidenced claims about the War Books Boom’. In an adjoining piece, James Benstead dives into his experience of organising the data from the Scottish War Books Boom project, based particularly on the literary magazine the Bookman (1891-1934). ‘Far from being an abstract technical exercise’, as James tells us, ‘this approach to working with data encourages researchers to ask new questions that can have an increased scope and depth’.

Magazines clearly play a large part in gathering information about the literature read and disseminated throughout the modernist period, and they were, of course, a home for literature as well as a meta-discussion area. The short story, in particular, made up much of the writing in modernist magazines, as Yen-Chi Wu discusses in their review of The Modern Short Story and Magazine Culture. Delving into one magazine in particular, Rachel Fountain Eames brings us an article on a publication that might be unfamiliar to most readers. Experiment, a student-run magazine launched at Cambridge in 1928, is a ‘vibrant source of inquiry’ and an example of ‘the cultural pressure-points that shape editorial choices’ as modernist studies ‘continue[s] to become more interdisciplinary’.

If, after reading this issue, you develop a hankering for a book network of your own, allow us a shameless plug for the brand new book group set up by BAMS PG Rep Jennifer and MSA’s first ever PG Rep, Annie Strausa! The group was launched during the BAMS Festival of Modernism, and our first (Zoom-based) meeting will be on 20th August, where we will be discussing Assembly by Natasha Brown, hailed as ‘a modern Mrs Dalloway’. If this sounds up your alley, reach out to any of us on Twitter, or send an email to tmr@bams.ac.uk, and we will get you added to MSA’s new Slack group!

We hope you enjoy this issue of the Modernist Review!

Best wishes,

Josh, Emily, Bryony, Jennifer & Gill


Cover image: Ernest Hemingway’s typewriter, Wikimedia Commons

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