Sylvia Beach, the sharp-eyed Paris publisher of James Joyce, once noticed “on his narrow feet, not so very white sneakers.” With her penchant for the unheralded detail, Beach might have made a very good journalist. Instead, with $3,000 in 1919, she founded Shakespeare and Company, the English-language bookstore and lending library at 8 rue Dupuytren. It is hard to know Beach well from her spry, self-effacing memoir, Shakespeare and Company (1959)—only the exemplary company she kept. To find her, one must go to her letters.

Keri Walsh’s compact and revealing volume introduces Beach as a character’s character, one whose struggle for existence in the madcap world of continental literature never ended, not even when her store did. The romantic, frisky American provocateur who emerges from Walsh’s book fairly cries out for film treatment. The Hollywood version might begin when Beach—a...


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