The Whole Five Feet

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We've recently discussed authors whose entire catalogs you've read (and boy was it a fun discussion!)...but what about collections of literature by multiple authors? One of the ultimate literary collections is the Harvard Classics (aka Dr. Eliot's Five Foot Shelf) -- my family owns two complete sets, but I have to admit I've only read a few volumes. Writer Christopher R. Beha is spending a year with the Harvard Classics, which amounts to roughly one volume each week. (Be sure to read Beha's reasons for engaging in the project.)

What are the Harvard Classics? According to the Wikipedia entry:

The Harvard Classics, originally known as Dr. Eliot's Five Foot Shelf, is a 51-volume anthology of classic works from world literature, compiled and edited by Harvard University president Charles W. Eliot that was first published in 1909.

Dr. Eliot, then President of Harvard University, had stated in speeches that the elements of a liberal education could be obtained by spending 15 minutes a day reading from a collection of books that could fit on a five-foot shelf. (Originally he had said a three-foot shelf.)

The publisher P. F. Collier and Son saw an opportunity, and challenged him to make good on this statement by selecting an appropriate collection of works; the Harvard Classics was the result. Eliot worked for one year together with William A. Neilson, a professor of English; Eliot determined the works to be included and Neilson selected the specific editions and wrote introductory notes. Each volume had 400 to 450 pages or so; and the included texts are "so far as possible, entire works or complete segments of the world's written legacies."

Beha's year with the Classics is documented on a web site entitled The Whole Five Feet. He's currently on Volume 34, which includes selections by Descartes, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Hobbes. Beha is discussing each volume as he completes it, making for a pretty impressive body of summaries.

If you're keen to spend some time with the Classics, you can find lots of complete Harvard Classics sets for less money than you'd expect. If you don't want to buy (and lug around) all those books, the complete text of the Harvard Classics is available for free online from Bartleby.com. Seriously -- the whole thing, free, as web pages.

So, dear readers, have you ever engaged in a project like Beha's -- reading a major series or collection of books? I have to admit, the closest I got was when I decided to read all the Harry Potter books (I held out until late 2006, then read them all over the course of six weeks). I've occasionally fantasized about reading The Penguin Classics Library Complete Collection (which I might term "the whole 77 feet"), but I think the Harvard Classics are a more achievable goal. Maybe I'll get started when I finish my current six-foot "to read" shelf.

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October 3, 2007 - 11:31am
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