Dr. Eliot's Five Foot Shelf
August 26, 2007 6:25 PM   Subscribe

The Whole Five Feet is a blog about reading the complete Harvard Classics by Christopher R. Beha. He's up to vol. 27 of 51. Here's a history and critique of the series from Harvard Magazine.
posted by Kattullus (22 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Let me begin the griping of what should have been included but wasn't by proposing Catullus and either Njal's Saga and Egil's Saga (a volume called Epics and Sagas really should include more than one saga) That said, I don't know if I selected five feet of classics from before 1900 that my selecion would be much better than Dr. Eliot's.
posted by Kattullus at 6:34 PM on August 26, 2007

lLooking back from the perpective of today, clearly the western perpective is much limited. I glanced at some of this and found the commentary not very helpful or helpful. One of the classic, the writer notes, would make a good Capra film. Glad that the classic has such merit.
posted by Postroad at 6:44 PM on August 26, 2007

Great Books Lists - a sort of meta list of great books lists - if you don't like one collection/list, there are many to choose from.
posted by stbalbach at 6:50 PM on August 26, 2007

clearly the western perpective is much limited.

Homer, Shakespeare and Dante are "much limited" compared to.. ?
posted by stbalbach at 6:53 PM on August 26, 2007

Previous threads that might be of interest - 1, 2, 3.

Regarding lists -- there's St. John's College Reading List and Mortimer Adler's The Great Books, as well as:
Great Books -- by David Denby

The Know-It-All -- by A.J. Jacobs

The New Lifetime Reading Plan -- by Clifton Fadiman & John S. Major

The Well Educated Mind -- by S. Wise Bauer & Susan Wise Bauer.
posted by ericb at 6:58 PM on August 26, 2007 [4 favorites]

Proper link for 'St. John's College Reading List.'
posted by ericb at 7:00 PM on August 26, 2007

That 2nd link is great, Katallus, thanks.
posted by mediareport at 7:16 PM on August 26, 2007

Regardless of the absolute merits of the content selection, I'd like to thank you for this post. There will always be a soft spot in my literary heart for the HC, simply because they were what I had access to when my literary curiosity kicked into high gear, and I have well-thumbed many a volume.
posted by trip and a half at 7:16 PM on August 26, 2007

The SJC list, by the way, is really just the list of the authors read in Seminar, which, as they say, forms the backbone of the Program, but is only part of it. The list doesn't, for example, include much of the Math and Laboratory readings, of which there are eight and six semesters, respectively. As a johnnie who thinks the Math/Science portion of the Program is just as important as the Literature/Philosophy parts, I thought I'd mention it.

The HC list doesn't look that great to me. But then, it wouldn't.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 7:30 PM on August 26, 2007

I think I garbled what I meant to say. What I meant was that the "classic" of days gone by reflects a mostly western tradition and neglects much else worth looking at. http://www.interleaves.org/~rteeter/grttabl4.html

and of course women's literature, native american, African-American etc. Of course much of the stuff is too contemporary to be considered in a list of classics, but Eastern and Middle East lit has much that is worthwhile. And true it is that anyone's list will leave out this or that which someone would prefer to be on a list.
for my own taste, now that you insist on knowing it, Shakespeare is supreme. Thugh the Greeks are lovely to read and/or see as plays they are removed from our own experience comared to the modernity and connection I seem to find in Shakespeae. Eliot rated Dante even over Shakespeare. But not me.
posted by Postroad at 7:35 PM on August 26, 2007

I'm working on the second book from the Harvard classics. My mom got one from some unknown source in the past. I figure that while I have it, I likely won't be without something to read at a moment's notice. It'll also go some ways toward achieving another goal of mine. Reading everything that has Cliff notes made for it. I figure if there's Cliff notes there's some value to it.
posted by ericales at 7:53 PM on August 26, 2007

Heh, I read that as 5 feet of books by Christopher R. Beha, an author I never had heard of. English is such a silly language...
posted by Eekacat at 8:12 PM on August 26, 2007

Yes, the "by Christopher R. Beha" modifier should have been appended to "blog" for clarity (I say while risking the wrath of languagehat).
posted by papakwanz at 8:22 PM on August 26, 2007

I always have such good intentions to read "the classics" - books I feel I should have read, that for some reason or another are seen as important and worthy. I have plenty of time to do so (flights, weekends, vacations etc.), yet always end up picking up some slightly-better-than-trashy but certainly easy-reading paperback.

So, I applaud and envy anyone who gets off their ass and does read them.
posted by djgh at 8:42 PM on August 26, 2007

"[A] classic - something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read."
-Mark Twain
posted by Sangermaine at 9:23 PM on August 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Harvard Classics online, in case you're curious about exactly what's in these five feet (and which ones make good Capra movies, etc etc etc).
posted by barnacles at 9:38 PM on August 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

djgh, I empathize, but technically, you don't need to get off your ass at all to read some classics. :)

The big barrier for a lot of us is the idea that it's gotta be some kind of chore. But it's not; I've been reading nothing but classics this year as a kind of dare to myself and it's been great - a lot more fun and interesting than I'd anticipated. Just pick one up and start; I've been surprised over and over again at how much the reality of particular classics has differed from the casual impression I've been carrying around in my head.

E.g., Madame Bovary, Native Son, Pride and Prejudice, Twelfth Night, Cather's My Ántonia, Hemingway's first two story collections (In Our Time and Men Without Women), Conrad's Typhoon, Youth and The Secret Sharer, Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory - all of them have been fantastic, engaging reads, easily as enjoyable as any of the contemporary fiction, scifi and vampire detective stuff I was filling my spare time with before.

And while reading the Five Foot Shelf is a neat idea for a blog, I don't really see the value in adhering strictly to a list from someone like Charles W. Eliot; it's much more fun to take your own elliptical path through the canon, bumping into authors in a more open way and letting the reading take you in unpredictable directions.
posted by mediareport at 10:01 PM on August 26, 2007

Yes, the "by Christopher R. Beha" modifier should have been appended to "blog" for clarity (I say while risking the wrath of languagehat).

Heh... I spent five minutes moving that back and forth and rewriting the first sentence trying to make it less clunky. In the end I threw my hands up and said "good enough!" Immediately after clicking post I thought, "dammit, it should be after *blog.*"
posted by Kattullus at 10:02 PM on August 26, 2007

Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith

I've spent many a night curled up with nice bottle of wine with this one. What a Scotsman, what a Scotsman.
posted by Gnostic Novelist at 10:36 PM on August 26, 2007

The Whole Five Feet

I manage the Bargain carts at a well-known indie bookstore. We offer a service (mainly for offices and movie sets) where customers can order 'book-by-the-foot'). Since bargain books are the cheapest, I usually have to rustle them up. The biggest one I've done so far is 39 feet.
posted by jonmc at 5:17 AM on August 27, 2007

Great post—we had the Five Foot Shelf in my high school library, and I used to flip through the magisterial volumes with a sense that I really should work my way through them... someday... It's good to know more about them, and this is a nicely complementary pair of links.

Yeah, the Beha posts are superficial, but it's a blog for chrissake, and for what it is it's well done. He's boring on the famous books but interesting on the little-known ones:
As for the New Atlantis, Bacon's unfinished vision of an ideal future state, it is easily the strangest thing I have read in the Classics so far. Given Bacon's legacy, the editors choose to emphasize the second half of the text, in which, in Eliot's words, we have Bacon the scientist indulging without restriction his prophetic vision of the future of human knowledge. But I was far more interested by the first half, which tells of Bacon's arrival at the unknown island of Bensalem and of the island's history, including its witness of a fiery cross in the sky within a generation of Jesus' death and the elaborate means by which the island has kept itself secret. For purposes of political science, this speculative narrative is completely gratuitous. I couldn't help thinking that Bacon, more than a century before Poe or Wells, had proven himself also the father of modern science fictions.
And the Harvard Magazine piece is very interesting; thanks for that!

Yes, the "by Christopher R. Beha" modifier should have been appended to "blog" for clarity (I say while risking the wrath of languagehat).

Dude, I'm all in favor of clarity—I'm an editor until the languagehat signal goes up and I change into my prescriptivist-fighting costume. One of the main things I keep trying to drum into people is that obsessing about stupid things like "beg the question" and ending sentences with prepositions just muddies the waters and makes it harder to pay attention to fixing what really needs fixing, like "the complete Harvard Classics by Christopher R. Beha."
posted by languagehat at 6:23 AM on August 27, 2007

"The big barrier for a lot of us is the idea that it's gotta be some kind of chore. But it's not..."

Unlike many of my fellow alumni of St. John's College, I wasn't really exposed to the classics at all as a child and I didn't much have an interest in what I did read in high school. I enjoyed Dante's Inferno, as many people do. But Shakespeare left me mostly cold, I'm sorry to say.

When I was at SJC in my late twenties, I discovered almost right off-the-bat that I was enjoying the books I was reading far, far more than I had expected I would. I had expected to be intellectually stimulated, but not to enjoy reading them just as something pleasurable regardless of my intellectual growth.

And it was in my sophomore year with Shakespeare that I most strongly had this revelation. Unlike when I was in high school, reading Shakespeare was just as enjoyable as reading any of the genre novels I grew up reading. Moreso, actually, as I was just having a great time reading the plays and I was also very, very deeply intellectually stimulated.

The point is that your experience of coming to these books at one point in your life is not going to be the same as your experience at another point in your life. And it varies from book to book, too, of course. It's hard to predict—five years ago, something may have been difficult to read, boring, unrelated to your concerns and your life. But today, suddenly, it's immediately accessible and deeply enjoyable.

So I think that you ought to periodically give these (or any other good books that you've wanted to read but have found difficult in the past when you've sampled them) a try. Over the years, you'll find some things that are easy to read and that you'll be extremely happy to have read after-the-fact. And there may come a time when you'll find all of them felicitous.

There's nothing wrong with you for finding them boring or difficult to read. But just keep checking back in with them from time-to-time. You'll be glad you did.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 6:45 AM on August 27, 2007

« Older Black Sunday: I think my mother thought it was the...   |   Lessons Learned in Web Publishing Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments