Sunday, January 30, 2011


The painters have gone. I'm re-arranging my Dad's set of Collier's Harvard Classics on the shelf. In volumes 1 - 50, Colliers, circa 1909, bundled together everything you needed to read to become "well read". My father purchased the set with his first paychecks as a lawyer. A precious possession, I moved the set from Canada after my mother died. Here's more about them from Wikipedia:

The Harvard Classics, originally known as Dr. Eliots Five Foot Shelf, is a 51volume anthology of classic works from world literature, compiled and edited by Harvard University president Charles W. Eliot and first published in 1909. Eliot 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 threefoot shelf.) The publisher P. F. Collier and Son saw an opportunity and challenged Eliot to make good on this statement by selecting an appropriate collection of works, and the Harvard Classics was the result. Eliot worked for one year 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 - 450 pages, and the included texts are so far as possible, entire works or complete segments of the worlds written legacies. The collection was widely advertised by Collier and Son, in Colliers Magazine and elsewhere, with great success. 

I was surprised at the "ETC" as I re-shelved Volume 32, entitled Literary and Philosophical Essays, Montaigne, Sainte Beuve, Renan etc.  "ETC"  includes 4 more authors and why were they relegated to "etc."? There was plenty of room on the spine to list the other four authors of which Immanuel Kant was one. The other ETC volume is 24., Edmund Burke. The Spine reads, "On the Sublime French Revolution ETC. The actual essays are: On Taste, On the Sublime and Beautiful, Reflections of the French Revolution, A letter to a Noble Lord. "ETC"??? What was the editor thinking? Looking closely at the copy on the spines, I see that many of them fall short of describing the contents.

The Burke book is a collection of essays on various subjects. I started reading them and found his reasoning alluring despite the absence of facts (unknown at the time). For instance, he writes of the pleasure of smoothness and reasons his way to the conclusion that sweet tastes are smooth and therefore cause pleasure. I learned via Wikipedia that he wrote this set of essays, speculations, philosophy "before he was 19". Imagine the time teenagers had on their hands before video gaming.

From Wikipedia: In 1757 Burke published a treatise on aesthetics, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, which attracted the attention of prominent Continental thinkers such as Denis Diderot and Immanuel Kant. It was his only purely philosophical work, and when asked by Sir Joshua Reynolds and Dr. Laurence to expand it thirty years later, Burke replied that he was no longer fit for abstract speculation (Burke had written it before he was 19).

Burke ended up profoundly affecting the political thinking of his time. He was an amazing orator and brilliant writer. His most famous quote is "for evil to triumph, it is only necessary for good men to do nothing."

As you can probably tell, I never found my way to most of these classics. The volume of Grimm's fairy tales is in tatters; this one was our favorite as children. My mother re-covered it with some red shelf paper. Looking back, I regret not having spent the recommended 15 minutes a day on these books. Today, I might be able to quote something more substantial than Ogden Nash. I suspect my father may have read them all - he seemed to always have a volume on his book pile.


  1. The cow is of the bovine ilk; one end is moo, the other milk.
    Ogden Nash

  2. Tell me, O Octopus, I begs
    Is those things arms, or is they legs?
    I marvel at thee, Octopus;
    If I were thou, I'd call me Us.

  3. Anonymous1:16 PM

    I'm still absolutely terrified that I will not read every book every published or should I say every book that I want to read before I die. It actually keeps me up nights. So I just discovered the most wonderful book in my library called "Bathroom Book Vol. 3". Last week I read The Illiad and the Odyssey, The Rise & Fall of the Holy Roman Empire, Ulysses, Kon Tiki, plus 10 or 12 others. Each selection is only 2 pages long. You pretty much get the idea of the
    story, familiar with the characters and voila! I'm speeding through the classics with ease. I even have time to read real books on the side. Now I have to search for volumes 1 and 2 and any others that have been published. What a concept.