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Five Feet of Books
July 11, 2013 2:07 PM   Subscribe

"During his days as Harvard’s influential president, Dr. Charles W. Eliot made a frequent assertion: If you were to spend just 15 minutes a day reading the right books, a quantity that could fit on a five-foot shelf, you could give yourself a proper liberal education. Publisher P. F. Collier and Son loved the idea and asked Eliot to compile and edit the right collection of works. The result: a 51-volume series of classic works from world literature published in 1909 called Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf, which would later be called The Harvard Classics." (Via)

"My purpose in selecting The Harvard Classics was to provide the literary materials from which a careful and persistent reader might gain a fair view of the progress of man observing, recording, inventing, and imagining from the earliest historical times to the close of the nineteenth century." ~ Charles W. Eliot, LLD
In addition to the archive.org link above, The Harvard Classics are also available online for free at Bartleby.

Annotated Digital Scans
posted by zarq (89 comments total) 75 users marked this as a favorite

 
I honestly wonder if anyone ever actually read anything out of the Harvard Classics. If you haven't seen them, well, imagine trying to read a novel typeset like an encyclopedia: tiny fonts in two columns on Bible paper. You could easily see the shadows of letters three pages deep. I think it was a plot by glasses manufacturers.
posted by sonic meat machine at 2:13 PM on July 11, 2013 [8 favorites]


Primo bucket list material. Thanks!
posted by Renoroc at 2:20 PM on July 11, 2013


Ten years or so ago I got obsessed with both this series, and the Great Books of the Western World, which was similar. It eventually led to me buying a set on eBay, finding dedicated shelf space for it, etc. And I had a PLAN that I was going to READ all of them. And I was serious about it!

Then life intervened, and I think that set ended up at Half Price Books. The idea now that the entire Harvard Classics is something I can download in an evening to my Kindle is mindboggling. Living in the future.
posted by jbickers at 2:20 PM on July 11, 2013 [6 favorites]


you could give yourself a proper liberal education.

Readable and clean-looking scans of the printed volumes, which is great, but olde-tyme claims that such Great Books compilations are comprehensive any any way just seems silly to the contemporary perspective.

Charles Eliot was also apparently T.S. Eliot's cousin, for what that's worth.
posted by aught at 2:21 PM on July 11, 2013


I had my dad's set for a while. Only thing I ever read out of it was Don Quixote.

Looked great on the shelf, though...
posted by Sys Rq at 2:24 PM on July 11, 2013


A neighbor of mine has these. I actually spent a couple hours reading from Cicero's Letters. It started as a whim, but was actually quite engrossing. Great find zarq.
posted by zinon at 2:25 PM on July 11, 2013


Seriously - the first reading is the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin? you must be kidding? why is that a significant text at all?

undermines the rest of the selections really.

-
ok checking Wikipedia: " It is often considered the first American book to be taken seriously by Europeans as literature..... However, Mark Twain's essay "The Late Benjamin Franklin" (1870) provides a less exalted reaction, albeit somewhat tongue-in-cheek (for example, claiming that his example had "brought affliction to millions of boys since, whose fathers had read Franklin's pernicious biography").
posted by mary8nne at 2:25 PM on July 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


The set is still worthwhile as a collection and certain translations are original and close to the 1923 PD cut-off making them the most recent and best freely available.
posted by stbalbach at 2:30 PM on July 11, 2013


The free online version seems to have the advantage of not being particularly hard on eyes.
posted by hat_eater at 2:32 PM on July 11, 2013


I kind of love the idea that millions of Americans were apparently planning to settle down in their smoking chair, pour themselves a brandy, and give themselves a proper liberal education with THE PHYSIOLOGICAL THEORY OF FERMENTATION IV: FERMENTATION OF DEXTRO-TARTRATE OF LIME.
posted by theodolite at 2:35 PM on July 11, 2013 [14 favorites]


aught: " Charles Eliot was also apparently T.S. Eliot's cousin, for what that's worth."

Seriously? Neat!
posted by zarq at 2:37 PM on July 11, 2013


Some of that didn't date all that well, perhaps
posted by thelonius at 2:39 PM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Dude. Your tags. Bravo.
posted by resurrexit at 2:39 PM on July 11, 2013 [15 favorites]


In the far future there will likely be many theories about the ability of ancient writers and editors to spell consistently, where the actual reason is poor OCR from low grade scans of cheap ass books with tiny fonts and sketchy print runs.
posted by sammyo at 2:41 PM on July 11, 2013 [5 favorites]


Heh. Thanks. The tags took nearly as long to do as the rest of the post. I pasted the text titles of all 51 volumes from the archive.org page into the tag field and then edited it down so it was (mostly) just author names. Halfway through I started cursing my brain for coming up with the idea.
posted by zarq at 2:42 PM on July 11, 2013 [6 favorites]


I'm torn between wondering if I'm as well read as I always believed if I still haven't read most of these (yet) and marveling at the incredibly Eurocentric and white male orientation of the collection.
posted by bearwife at 2:43 PM on July 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


Mortimer Adler, associated with the Great Books, co-wrote How to Read a Book with Charles Van Doren, of Quiz Show scandal fame. Neil Postman is somehow connected to Adler as well, but I can't remember how. I just equate the whole thing with East coast elitism and insider baseball and complaining about the Cubs not winning the pennant while hanging out on your boat in Nantucket.
posted by mecran01 at 2:45 PM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Chris Marcil read them all and blogged about it.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 2:46 PM on July 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


Well, even if you consider it as a 5 foot shelf of white males, it's loaded with lots of English poetry that (as far as I know) no one considers to be essential to an educated person any more (Tennyson, for example)

Who knows, though, maybe History will deem him greater than Yeats and Pound etc, eventually.
posted by thelonius at 2:48 PM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]




Apropos of nothing, I'm reminded of a rich doctor who was having his custom house built. Between his large media room, complete with rows of plush recliners, and his gym/sauna was a spiral staircase. Lining part of the staircase was a custom made set of the Harvard Classics, bound to fit and match the staircase. We're talking thousands and thousands of dollars for these one-off bindings just to be scenery. They might as well just been painted spines on the staircase for all the literary value they were providing.
posted by planetesimal at 2:52 PM on July 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


I grew up reading these but truth be told, the fairy tale volume and the 1001 nights volume were what captured my teenaged attention the most. Thank you, Mom and Dad!
posted by Lynsey at 2:57 PM on July 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's no slander on the Harvard Classics or any of the other library-by-the-foot collections to say that the list of essential readings has changed since the early 20th century. They were a good collection then, and they're a good collection now (apart from some translations I don't like), they're just not nearly the "complete" collection they once were. That's fine — "The Fifteen Decisive Battles in the History of the World from Marathon to Waterloo" is no longer essential history, but it's great reading for different reasons.

There are probably a few things which can safely be taken off the list now, but I think it's more that you must add much more and apply your time more wisely than however it was prescribed in the 20s.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 3:00 PM on July 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


These books date to a time when education was aimed at producing a "well rounded person" instead of a technically trained employe.
posted by Cranberry at 3:00 PM on July 11, 2013 [7 favorites]


Chris Marcil read them all and blogged about it.

These are more enjoyable reading than any of the actual Classics, except maybe Cellini.
posted by theodolite at 3:01 PM on July 11, 2013


Is there a Chinese equivalent of this?
posted by Nelson at 3:03 PM on July 11, 2013


Mildewed and forlorn rafts of these things were consistent features of the dusty second hand bookshops of my childhood.

Nice to know where they came from at long last.
posted by jamjam at 3:04 PM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Is there a Chinese equivalent of this?

Well it'd probably start with The Four Great Classical Novels.
posted by Zed at 3:05 PM on July 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


It's no slander on the Harvard Classics or any of the other library-by-the-foot collections to say that the list of essential readings has changed since the early 20th century.

I'm sure any list made today would look equally dated to people in 100 years, yes. Eliot took his best shot; I just find it interesting which writers seem (to me at least) not so essential now.

Certainly people's idea of a canon changes greatly over time. Isn't it the case that the Bodlean Library once sold their Shakespeare folio, because they decided that he wasn't a writer deserving serious academic interest? Bach's music was almost forgotten for a long time, too: people thought of him as the father of C.P.E, not as the great genius of Baroque music.
posted by thelonius at 3:11 PM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]



Cool. I've come across these books but never knew the history behind them. I've read excerpts from quite a few in University but the only one I've ever made a serious attempt at is The Wealth of Nations. Didn't get very far.

A number are on my current list to read with a caveat. I plan to read them in their original Latin. I started teaching myself Latin about 3 weeks ago with the long term goal of being able to read old texts in it. Why? I'm a geek I guess. It's something I've always pondered doing and decided to make it a project to challenge my aging brain to stay young and agile. I figure I should be able to tackle those classics in...mmm...about 3 or 4 years. lol
posted by Jalliah at 3:12 PM on July 11, 2013


Mortimer Adler, associated with the Great Books, co-wrote How to Read a Book with Charles Van Doren, of Quiz Show scandal fame. Neil Postman is somehow connected to Adler as well, but I can't remember how. I just equate the whole thing with East coast elitism and insider baseball and complaining about the Cubs not winning the pennant while hanging out on your boat in Nantucket.

Amusingly, both Postman and Adler were Jewish and thus generally excluded from most of the actual East Coast elite circles at the time merely by dint of their heritage. The consumers of the Great Books set were, by and large, middle-class strivers who were told that reading these works would make them more like the upper class in which Aristotle and Cervantes were part and parcel of everyone's education. Of course, actual upper class people cared about as much about the great books of world literature as they did the zoological marvels of Australia (which is to say a few cared a lot and a larger number pretended to care when it suited them, but overall they cared very little). The project is a another remnant of the idea that the upper class in America is an aesthetic that you can mimic, and if you somehow mimic it perfectly enough, you will magically become upper class, no matter your family connections, upbringing, or bank account.
posted by Copronymus at 3:13 PM on July 11, 2013 [20 favorites]


Chris Marcil read them all and blogged about it.

These are more enjoyable reading than any of the actual Classics, except maybe Cellini.


Thoroughly agreed! Nothing is more enjoyable than reading Cellini!

Things that Cellini talks about:
How he killed like three different people, mostly for very petty reasons. One guy, who insulted his brother, I think, he followed around, then bravely waited for him to turn into a dark alley before stabbing him in the neck from behind. This is, of course, all recounted quite proudly as something that any moral and ethical person would approve of.

His multiple accusations and trials for the crime of sodomy -- one of which he gets off the hook for by effectively painting his accuser as a hussy and a slut who was asking for it. Again, proudly noted.

And, of course, all of the exquisite, wonderful, incredible pieces of art he made. Everything he makes is the best of its kind, ever. You know this is true because not only does Cellini tell you this, but he quotes numerous peoples' adoring comments as well.

At any rate: go out and read Cellini.
posted by artichoke_enthusiast at 3:18 PM on July 11, 2013 [6 favorites]


An original set had been passed down in my family until a very sad day in my teens when a roof leak wiped them out.

Most of my early classical literature education came from those books. Not all of it made sense at the time, and it's been a wonderful lifelong scavenger hunt to fill in the details.

-------

ISMENE: But will you kill your own son's promised bride?
CREON: Oh, there are other furrows for his plough.

(Age 10) Plough? Did they give land as part of marriage?
(Age 15) Ohhhhhhh.....
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 3:21 PM on July 11, 2013 [13 favorites]


I went to one of the universities driving the Great Books of the Western World program, for that reason, have never regretted it, and recently started to assemble the set on a Kindle using Project Gutenburg.

Harold Bloom summed up the whole canon debate for me. In a finite life, confronted with a near-infinite library, how do you decide what books to read? If you want to rely on the wisdom of the last 50 years to decide, that's fine, but if people are still reading Homer (and still staging timely plays drawing heavily on the Iliad, as has been the case in Boston recently) I'm inclined to think there's a good reason having nothing to do with European maleness. For that matter, some people think the Odyssey was written by a woman.

When the second edition of TGBOTWW came out, it tried to include more 20th century works. It was a chaotic grab bag of things that included, for example, one short story each from Faulkner and Hemingway. The point should be obvious: there just hasn't been enough time to tell if these things will last. And the same could be said of some of the original inclusions in the Harvard Classics. Time has rendered its verdict.

Incidentally, Harold Bloom's list of essential books is worth checking out as well.
posted by seemoreglass at 3:23 PM on July 11, 2013 [5 favorites]



I honestly wonder if anyone ever actually read anything out of the Harvard Classics. If you haven't seen them, well, imagine trying to read a novel typeset like an encyclopedia: tiny fonts in two columns on Bible paper. You could easily see the shadows of letters three pages deep. I think it was a plot by glasses manufacturers.

This would be hilariously true if it were not hilariously false. I just pulled about eight books of the fifty at random off my shelf to look. Standard font (looks like 11pt to me) throughout, one justified column throughout, heavy paper throughout. The only place that it goes to smaller type or two columns is the index. You didn't just look at the index, did you?

By pure chance the first one I grabbed was volume 45, Sacred Writings 2, which commences with Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. Due to a misspent youth, I have quite a few bibles kicking around the house. the HC set uses the KJV, so I pulled down four King James editions to compare.

In the Harvard Classics, one page of text barely gets us into Chapter 1, Verse 13. A 1966 trade paperback version from Worldwide Publications gets us to 1:19 with a heck of a lot of white space. A Gideon standard hotel bedside one gets to 1:13, but Corinthians starts three-quarters of the way down the page. And a couple of 19th-centurey classic KJV editions with the tiny printing and the ultra-thin paper get to 1:15 and 1:17, but in both cases again the chapter starts most of the way down the page. What the Harvard Classics puts on one page, literally every other single edition I can locate puts in a fraction of that. Essentially, the HC is rendered in type twice as large as anything else out there, in volumes that are more compact than a current trade paperback.

All I can conclude is that either (a) you have seen some baffling Harvard Classics knock-off, or, (b) you haven't the first idea of what you are talking about.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 3:24 PM on July 11, 2013 [7 favorites]



Anyone know if there is a list similar to this that includes works that aren't just white western males? Some sort of more global, gender inclusive list? My google-fu is failing.
posted by Jalliah at 3:30 PM on July 11, 2013


I've read one or two of the books in the Harvard Classics series - but not the Classics editions with their little print. It's wonderful that they're available online, though. Especially in text editions that you can display in the most comfortable format on a reader.

I've also read "How To Read A Book," and it's pretty much what it sounds like. In many ways it's a useful reminder of correct reading habits for younger readers (how to hold the book, not go backwards, and so on), but it's kind of sad how alien a lot of the advice in it will seem to modern readers. As I recall, Adler and Van Doren were big advocates of writing in the margins of your books, underlining and circling things, and just in general making the book "yours" by engaging in a sort-of conversation with the author as you went along. Someone born today who uses nothing but electronic readers and touch screens might not understand the value of that at all.
posted by Kevin Street at 3:31 PM on July 11, 2013


At any rate: go out and read Cellini.

SERIOUSLY, no body has had more fun than Cellini, naked horseback gunfights and all!
posted by The Whelk at 3:35 PM on July 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


As I recall, Adler and Van Doren were big advocates of writing in the margins of your books, underlining and circling things, and just in general making the book "yours" by engaging in a sort-of conversation with the author as you went along. Someone born today who uses nothing but electronic readers and touch screens might not understand the value of that at all.

I've always done this with books and though not quite the same I was happy when I figured out that I could underline and write notes on my e-reader. I've even read a few e-books where I've kept a notebook on hand to jot down thoughts and ideas. Because the notes aren't directly by the text it's pretty funny to read them just on their own.
posted by Jalliah at 3:37 PM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I wrote...
An original set had been passed down in my family...

I forgot to mention the visceral thrill that came from cutting open pages that hadn't been read before. I was the first person in 70 years of family history to see what was hidden within...
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 3:49 PM on July 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


Some sort of more...gender inclusive list?

Radcliffe's List of 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
posted by seemoreglass at 3:50 PM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Ten years or so ago I got obsessed with both this series, and the Great Books of the Western World, which was similar."

Basically vols. 3-56 of those are my education at St. John's College. Adler was affiliated with SJC, there's a strong correspondence between the Encyclopædia Britannica Great Books and the SJC New Program. The Harvard Classics are more broad.

The pedagogy at SJC is unusual in that there's no lectures, it's all seminar, and the instructors generally only lightly guide discussion in a socratic fashion. Which is to say, there's very little authoritative guidance of the students in their engagement with these works. This has its virtues and its vices; I think it works, but mostly because the students are extremely heavily self-selected to be the kind of students for whom it is most likely to work.

But my point is that I believe that reading these books and thinking about them in social isolation would be much, much less productive than was my experience of doing so cooperatively in a classroom. These works exist within a social context, they are the embodiment of a historical dialectic, I think they are most naturally engaged with socially and discursively. This includes the scientific, mathematical, and musical works.

I greatly value what I got from these books, both in themselves and in terms of cultural literacy. But I value even more the productive cooperative intellectual activity I was involved with at SJC — it was something I've never experienced before or since. It was life-changing for me to learn that a group of us could achieve breakthrough insights together that none of us could have achieved alone, no matter how brilliant any one or more individuals might have been. And the value in the ideas in these works is at least as much found in working with them than it is in "knowing them", whatever that might mean. Like I said, this work is naturally cooperative, it should be done in company.

That's not to say that there's little value in reading and pondering very good books alone! Of course there's much value in doing so! But the very best and most important works contain depths that cannot be adequately explored alone.

"Anyone know if there is a list similar to this that includes works that aren't just white western males? Some sort of more global, gender inclusive list? My google-fu is failing."

St. John's offers a Master's in Eastern Studies that is structured comparably to the New Program, though of course only as a two-year course of study. Here's the reading list.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 3:53 PM on July 11, 2013 [18 favorites]


All I can conclude is that either (a) you have seen some baffling Harvard Classics knock-off, or, (b) you haven't the first idea of what you are talking about.

Ok, disregarding the weirdly insulting tone of your post, I used to work in a library that had an array of classic books in leather bindings that were, I believe, the Harvard classics. It's possible that they were some sort of reprinting from after they came into the public domain; it's even possible that they were just a knock-off. Certainly, however, there existed a print run of these things with the qualities I maintained.
posted by sonic meat machine at 3:56 PM on July 11, 2013


It feels like there's a heavy preference for famous or well-known books over ones that might be more useful. For instance, while I don't want to disparage the immense contribution of On the Origin of Species, I have to say that I think you'd get more out of reading a current college textbook on evolutionary biology. Actually, you'd think 'a current college textbook on the subject' would make up at least a third of the collection.
posted by Mitrovarr at 3:59 PM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Actually, you'd think 'a current college textbook on the subject' would make up at least a third of the collection.

I disagree. College textbooks are generally enough to give you a cursory understanding of a subject; but there's a reason advanced courses send you to the bookshop for a stack of primary sources a meter high and a tenth the price of SOCIAL FORCES, 79TH EDITION.
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:03 PM on July 11, 2013


But my point is that I believe that reading these books and thinking about them in social isolation would be much, much less productive than was my experience of doing so cooperatively in a classroom.

Everyone has their preferences, but in my experience if you first encounter a book in a social setting you will never be able to sort out what it means to you personally from the group discussion.

There is always time to incorporate other's thoughts and opinions later but you only get one shot at experiencing a book untouched.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:04 PM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Actually, you'd think 'a current college textbook on the subject' would make up at least a third of the collection.

Yes, indeed. Modern books have told me far more about Wealth of Nations than I ever managed to get out of the original. Same with On the Origin of Species. There is a reason colleges use textbooks and not simply point students to the original texts.
posted by Triplanetary at 4:07 PM on July 11, 2013


I have to say that I think you'd get more out of reading a current college textbook on evolutionary biology.

That depends on your goals. The Origin of Species isn't just about evolution; it's a landmark of Western literature. Of course there are easier or more up-to-date introductions, if you want to learn about evolution, but that's not why you'd read Darwin today.
posted by junco at 4:08 PM on July 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


It feels like there's a heavy preference for famous or well-known books over ones that might be more useful.

It depends on what you're studying. If you want to know about evolutionary biology you should go straight to the textbook. If you want to know the history of human thought and how we came to have a category of science called "Evolutionary Biology" then Origin of Species is vital source material.

There is a field of study called "Classics", part of which concerns itself with how the fascination with ancient Roman and Greek literature in the Renaissance shaped the world we live in today. I feel like The Harvard Classics provide us a similar chance: we know now what the educated class in the early 1900s was reading, which gives us a lot of context for the world they went on to create.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:15 PM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


There is a reason colleges use textbooks and not simply point students to the original texts.

Not all colleges do this. It's the difference between being told what Darwin meant and reading Darwin to find out for yourself; the difference between a technical and a liberal education.
posted by seemoreglass at 4:16 PM on July 11, 2013 [7 favorites]


In my upper level Evolution class, students read On the Origin of Species because, in fact, it still presents the clearest explanation of the process of evolution by natural selection anywhere in the form of an argument that anyone can understand. It's also really good for students to see how an idea is developed, rather than just to have those ideas presented to them as fact in their textbook (They have one of those, too. It's good. But it's not Darwin.)
posted by hydropsyche at 4:17 PM on July 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


OK, you've convinced me... I will give On the Origin of Species another go. So many books, so little time.
posted by Triplanetary at 4:21 PM on July 11, 2013



Okay. I downloaded. Now hooked on Cellini.
posted by Jalliah at 4:31 PM on July 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


Now hooked on Cellini.

Wow. It's like he's the Jim Steranko of his day.
posted by Zed at 4:37 PM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wow. It's like he's the Jim Steranko of his day.

I knew there was no going back when he talked about Michelangelo getting punched in the nose.
posted by Jalliah at 4:43 PM on July 11, 2013


Yes, read Cellini! There are amazing things in that autobiography, such as trying to summon a demon in the middle of the Coliseum at midnight, or being imprisoned by the Pope's son, busting out of the prison, breaking a leg falling from the outer wall, and crawling around Rome in the middle of the night with a broken leg....etc. etc. It's been years since I read it and my memory is a bit hazy now, but it's definitely one of the most entertaining books I've ever read. (Note -- it starts out a bit slow because, of course, he's just a kid in the beginning; stick with it and you'll be glad you did.)
I'd love to see HBO make a series about Cellini.

Also, kudos to Eliot for proposing a Massive Open Offline Course.
posted by uosuaq at 4:49 PM on July 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


Origin is a somewhat repetitive, but none the less very useful read. Because while Darwin does not know the technical details of how traits are passed on, he has already understood many salient points of why. It is shocking to see Darwin competently addressing exactly those points on which evolution is challenged to this day, as if evolution's oponents can't be arsed to come up with any fresh challenges.
posted by wotsac at 4:55 PM on July 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


you could give yourself a proper liberal education

That list is too thin in the sciences and practically avoids referring to the influence of art and architecture on the human thought.
posted by francesca too at 5:03 PM on July 11, 2013


My argument wasn't that you shouldn't read On the Origin of Species. It was that if you only ever read one book on evolution, a modern textbook on the subject would be a better choice. I'm sure On the Origin of Species is fantastic, but the value of the stuff you'd be missing would be far too great (including, for instance, the entire field of genetics). And it's like that in every modern scientific field.

I've always considered a generalist science education to be part of a good liberal education, and you just cannot get one without reading modern materials.
posted by Mitrovarr at 5:04 PM on July 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


sonic meat machine: "Ok, disregarding the weirdly insulting tone of your post, I used to work in a library that had an array of classic books in leather bindings that were, I believe, the Harvard classics. It's possible that they were some sort of reprinting from after they came into the public domain; it's even possible that they were just a knock-off. Certainly, however, there existed a print run of these things with the qualities I maintained."

Yeah, I could have sworn what you're talking about was the Harvard Classics, but apparently it's a similar series by the University of Chicago called the "Great Books of the Western World," which has exactly the features you described: two columns (e.g. here), and incredibly thin paper. I too had no idea that they were different until just a minute ago.
posted by crazy with stars at 5:13 PM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


it's loaded with lots of English poetry that (as far as I know) no one considers to be essential to an educated person any more (Tennyson, for example)

What?

Theirs is not to reason why?

Sunset and evening star?

Better to have loved and lost? Nature red in tooth and claw?

Certainly an educated native English speaker should have had some exposure to Tennyson.
posted by Jahaza at 5:28 PM on July 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


Could be just my prejudice. All of that late 19th Century English poetry seems so corny and contrived to me. Sure, if you really want to know English literature, you read it, all of it. But is Tennyson really what you'd anthologize as some of the most important literature that our eager self-educator must read? I mean, imagine you only have room for so many poems, and everything you put in means you have to leave something else out.
posted by thelonius at 5:34 PM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ok, disregarding the weirdly insulting tone of your post, I used to work in a library that had an array of classic books in leather bindings that were, I believe, the Harvard classics. It's possible that they were some sort of reprinting from after they came into the public domain; it's even possible that they were just a knock-off. Certainly, however, there existed a print run of these things with the qualities I maintained.

Yeah, I am not sure what I was thinking by pulling the actual books under discussion off the shelf and verifying that they were nothing like what you said, rather than relying on your vague memory of a book series that you believe may or may not have been what we are talking about.

I own the full set and and have seen at least half a dozen other sets in my lifetime. None are remotely like what you describe.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:38 PM on July 11, 2013


I am sorry you find my tone weirdly offensive. In my possibly-romanticized view, the Harvard Classics put the core of the Western Canon a century ago in reach for the first time to a huge segment of the populace who would never be able to afford a higher education. So when people make up nonsense about it for the yuks based on something they half-remember having seen once and which might be something else entirely, then yeah, I have zero problem calling bullshit.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:51 PM on July 11, 2013


So I've been listening to the audio version of The Story of Civilization and it is amazing. Some of it is dated, but it's still amazingly informative and insightful.

That's not exactly relevant here, but close enough.
posted by DU at 5:58 PM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I always pictured Cellini as looking and acting like Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, Wrath of God.
posted by TSOL at 6:10 PM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I could have sworn what you're talking about was the Harvard Classics, but apparently it's a similar series by the University of Chicago called the "Great Books of the Western World," which has exactly the features you described: two columns (e.g. here), and incredibly thin paper. I too had no idea that they were different until just a minute ago.

Thanks, that's precisely it.


I am sorry you find my tone weirdly offensive. In my possibly-romanticized view, the Harvard Classics put the core of the Western Canon a century ago in reach for the first time to a huge segment of the populace who would never be able to afford a higher education. So when people make up nonsense about it for the yuks based on something they half-remember having seen once and which might be something else entirely, then yeah, I have zero problem calling bullshit.

It's clear that you're emotionally attached to this. Perhaps you have a compelling personal anecdote about it; but to my view, these are essentially the QVC product of their era. When I was young I remember book salesmen trolling the (lower class) areas where I lived, convincing uneducated mothers that their children would have a much better educational future if they bought expensive sets of books. I had lots of sets of well-bound, impressive volumes on things like science, history, collections of classic books, two(!) encyclopedias, all sold to my mother (who never completed more than 8th grade) on installment plans in the hopes that I would have all the education she lacked. She paid thousands over the years.

What she didn't know was that there were inexpensive, widely available paperbacks, used books, and so on that would have been much better investments and given me just the same information. The nicely bound, expensive books were products designed specifically to make people who had not been educated feel that they should buy them; after all, that's how you get educated, by reading from fancy books!

To this day, I have a certain amount of contempt for these types of editions, even the progenitors like the Harvard classics. Maybe it's unfair, and I criticized its typesetting based on a faulty memory, but I don't like the romanticized understanding of things like this because, to me, it is ignorant of a certain flavor of exploitative pandering that actually constitutes a minor but real part of the class divide.

Libraries are what help poor people get an education. Not prestige editions of classic literature.
posted by sonic meat machine at 6:23 PM on July 11, 2013 [14 favorites]



I'm now on chapter 30 of Cellini's autobiography and am a bit perturbed that in all my years of liberal university education this was missed. How have I not heard of this before I keep thinking. So thanks for this thread. Never knew the 16th century in quite this way before. I doubt he meant it to be comedy but in this era it sure reads like one. I can't stop laughing. Every time he mentions 'the accursed music' I giggle.

This guy is awesome.
posted by Jalliah at 6:23 PM on July 11, 2013


Ooh, archive/librivox has got Cellini as audiobook. And presumably most if not all of the classics.
posted by sebastienbailard at 6:29 PM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Seriously - the first reading is the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin? you must be kidding? why is that a significant text at all?

I don't know whether it's significant or not but it is awesome.
posted by escabeche at 6:35 PM on July 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


This thing reminds me of Everyman's Library.

How have I not heard of this before I keep thinking...

Often hidden in the fine print of all those Art History doorstops: "and by the way, Cellini also published a bizzare autobiography..."

So I've been listening to the audio version of The Story of Civilization and it is amazing. Some of it is dated, but it's still amazingly informative and insightful.

I'm a big fan of The Story of Civilization by Will & Ariel Durant. I like how it doesn't really seem that dated, they're pretty forward thinking. At full length the audio version you mention sounds like, um, a lot of hours...
posted by ovvl at 6:59 PM on July 11, 2013


sonic meat machine, you might like The Making of Middlebrow Culture (Amazon link, can probably find it used). It talks about exactly that sort of sale, and the class stratification and assumptions which encouraged/enabled it.
posted by postcommunism at 7:10 PM on July 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


Another Johnnie here, and how did I not know about Cellini before now? This sounds even better than de Quincey's "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts" (PDF).

Any listing of the so-called Great Books, like any "best of" anything, is always going to be a matter of interpretation. The St. John's curriculum, for example, is constantly reevaluated as books fall in and out of favor--I've heard that Rabelais was on the Program for many years solely at the behest of a lone (and now deceased) tutor. At the same time, some books stand up better over time: Homer is always going to have pride of place; same with Plato, same with Cervantes, same with Tolstoy. Whatever books get chosen, the goal is always getting a sense of what I think Adler called The Great Conversation--the ideas, arguments, and themes that have animated much of Western thought. How Thucydides, say, argues with Homer and Herodotus, or how Hobbes, in turn, builds on Thucydides to develop his political philosophy. Having that historical sense is really handy: a lot of the questions that animate public life are pretty old, and knowing the contours of those questions opens up the possibility of saying something new about them.
posted by Cash4Lead at 7:17 PM on July 11, 2013


Anyone know if there is a list similar to this that includes works that aren't just white western males? Some sort of more global, gender inclusive list?

So there isn't really a close equivalent because making The Stupendous Compendorium of All Literature went out of fashion before being inclusive became a thing, so while you might find such a list it won't look as nice on your shelf. However, there was The Literature of All Nations, which is kind of like Harvard Classics except it endeavored to include translations of classic writings from all over the world - though there was still a pretty heavy European bias, the linked volume actual has Indian, Chinese, and Persian writings, for example.

There were a few courses I took in college whose syllabi would be helpful here, but unfortunately the university has pushed login-only systems too much.
posted by 23 at 7:22 PM on July 11, 2013


Nelson: "Is there a Chinese equivalent of this?"

For the last 2,000ish years, possibly with Confucius's approval, you would want the Four Books and Five Classics.

(I am reading "Classic of Poetry" right now and it pierces my heart.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:24 PM on July 11, 2013


Isn't it the case that the Bodlean Library once sold their Shakespeare folio, because they decided that he wasn't a writer deserving serious academic interest?

Story I heard was they sold the first folio because once they had gotten the second one, who needed it?

Libraries are what help poor people get an education. Not prestige editions of classic literature
.

I take your point about publishers selling the unwary a bill of goods, but my guess is that Eliot was not in it for the money, that he was play the part of the docent for those who wanted a solid liberal education. You can waste a lot of time in libraries if you don't know what you don't know.
posted by IndigoJones at 7:32 PM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


sonic meat machine, you might like The Making of Middlebrow Culture (Amazon link, can probably find it used). It talks about exactly that sort of sale, and the class stratification and assumptions which encouraged/enabled it.

Thanks, it looks interesting. Ordered.

I take your point about publishers selling the unwary a bill of goods, but my guess is that Eliot was not in it for the money, that he was play the part of the docent for those who wanted a solid liberal education. You can waste a lot of time in libraries if you don't know what you don't know.

Perhaps. I'll note though that there were already inexpensive editions of classic books around that time; the "cheap book" market began in the late 19th Century. A list may have been sufficient for most people. I do think Everyman's Library (mentioned above) has probably been more significant for getting books into the hands of people who need them than these sorts of editions have been.
posted by sonic meat machine at 7:46 PM on July 11, 2013


I got a set from my dad about 20 yrs ago. He was moving and didn't want to pack them up and unpack them again. I'm about halfway through volume 3. I like the challenge of reading them... when I'm single... and am in a new town, with no friends. Now they're up on a shelf in a spare bedroom and they look pretty... lonely.
posted by Lukenlogs at 10:36 PM on July 11, 2013


Seriously - the first reading is the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin? you must be kidding? why is that a significant text at all?

If you are interested in the development of autobiography (a term which post-dates Franklin) as a genre. It's also quite interesting if you are interested in the significance of printing within the somewhat eventful politics and intellectual life of the time and place of its writing. Admittedly, these are historical arguments which the whole (somewhat dubious notion) of the Classic is meant to transcend; but you can draw parallels with later self-help /advice literature and with other information revolutions.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 12:41 AM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Isn't it the case that the Bodlean Library once sold their Shakespeare folio, because they decided that he wasn't a writer deserving serious academic interest?

Story I heard was they sold the first folio because once they had gotten the second one, who needed it?


Third folio, possibly.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 12:51 AM on July 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm now on chapter 30 of Cellini's autobiography and am a bit perturbed that in all my years of liberal university education this was missed. How have I not heard of this before I keep thinking

Nietzsche gives it two thumbs up somewhere, probably where he's discussing "style"
posted by thelonius at 2:23 AM on July 12, 2013


But is Tennyson really what you'd anthologize as some of the most important literature that our eager self-educator must read?

I would trim the Tennyson selection a good deal to focus it, but Tennyson is certainly worth at least as much anthology space as any poet writing now.
posted by pracowity at 3:53 AM on July 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I've loved Tennyson's Ulysses since I found a snippet of it quoted in an adventure novel found on the shelves of a school in Italy.
Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
I went back to make sure that I still loved it and yeah, I still do. It turns out I even share my favorite line with "Raul Menendez, the villain of video game Call of Duty: Black Ops II , [who] quotes the following line from "Ulysses" as his motto: "Come my friends. 'Tis not too late to seek a newer world." Anything used in James Bond and Call of Duty has to still be awesome, right? Right?
posted by jetlagaddict at 5:28 AM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]




Needs. MOAR. Tags!!!!!
posted by RolandOfEld at 7:09 AM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's clear that you're emotionally attached to this. Perhaps you have a compelling personal anecdote about it; but to my view, these are essentially the QVC product of their era.

You have found me out: I am in the pocket of Big Century-Old-Reference-Library-Series.

No, I have had a set for decades and carried it through a dozen moves. I bought it when I was young and broke and before the letters www. meant anything. It is actually seeing more use now than it ever has, for when the teenager of the house has a question about Milton or St. Augustine. She has grown up in a home with thousands of books, and it shows. Me, I love 19th-century prose, so I am always happy to sit in the recliner and read some Macaulay or Hazlitt essays. For those of you about to reply and evangelize about how everything is free on the internet, grandpa -- I have to stare at a screen for eight hours a day for work. I do not feel the need to stare at it every time I wish to read something for leisure.

Maybe it's unfair, and I criticized its typesetting based on a faulty memory, but I don't like the romanticized understanding of things like this because, to me, it is ignorant of a certain flavor of exploitative pandering that actually constitutes a minor but real part of the class divide.

Considering that yours was the very first comment, was broadly aiming for the yuks, and was factually inaccurate in every particular, it seems to me the quintessence of threadshitting. If you wish to characterize it as a minor lapse of memory and then hurry with a segue into a class war crusade, feel free.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:17 PM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Considering that yours was the very first comment, was broadly aiming for the yuks, and was factually inaccurate in every particular, it seems to me the quintessence of threadshitting.

Gotta say I didn't read any of that into the comment, and your continuing hostility about the whole thing has started to feel a little weird.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 1:42 PM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


your continuing hostility about the whole thing has started to feel a little weird.

Fair enough. I depart.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:44 PM on July 12, 2013


Who was that masked man?
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 2:01 PM on July 12, 2013


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