Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Sepia Saturday 187: Harvard Classics

What is precious, tattered, torn and handed down? To so many of us Sepians, the answer is photographs - family photographs passed on from generation to generation are the currency of Sepia Saturday. But occasionally other things are handed down - and in so many cases it is the family bible that becomes the linchpin of family history. So for Sepia Saturday 187  we focus our attention on family bibles. But in the best traditions of Sepia Saturday themes, you can interpret the theme in any way you want : books, lettering, printing, hand-me-downs  ... they all fall within our theme this week. Our theme image was specially created from a collage of family bible pictures provided by seasoned Sepians Kathy and Martha and stitched together by Marilyn.

We didn't have a family Bible. The most treasured books we owned were my Dad's set of Collier's Harvard Classics. My father purchased the set with his first paychecks as a lawyer, around 1923. Colliers, circa 1909, bundled together in 50 volumes everything you needed to read to become "well read".  They are not particularly rare and you can buy a set on eBay for about $300.00. To me however my set is priceless. Here's more about them from Wikipedia:

The Harvard Classics, originally known as Dr. Eliots Five Foot Shelf, is a 51 volume 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 three foot 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. 

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. The pages are stained and dog-eared and the spine is barely holding. My mother re-covered the volume with red shelf paper. 

I wrote some really vapid notes in the poetry volumes when I was in college; my sister scribbled thoughts in the Chaucer.  Which brings to mind this wonderful Billy Collins poem. Chokes me up every time I read it. 


Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O'Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive -
'Nonsense.' 'Please! ' 'HA! ! ' -
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
why wrote 'Don't be a ninny'
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls 'Metaphor' next to a stanza of Eliot's.
Another notes the presence of 'Irony'
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
'Absolutely,' they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
'Yes.' 'Bull's-eye.' 'My man! '
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written 'Man vs. Nature'
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird signing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake's furious scribbling.

Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents' living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil-
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
'Pardon the egg salad stains, but I'm in love.' 

I wish I'd spent the recommended 15 minutes a day reading the Classics.  Today, I might be able to quote something more substantial than naughty limericks and Ogden Nash. I suspect my father may have read and re-read them all; he seemed always to have a volume on his book pile. 

More personal stories about treasured books can be found at Sepia Saturday


  1. The poem had me until the Joshua Reynolds part. Reynolds was a painter, not a scribe. I sold one once for my dad. What am I missing?

    1. Wow...that must have been quite a sale. I emailed you a bit of info about the Reynolds discourses. Now I have to read them.

  2. Yeah. I'm stuck on limericks and Ogden Nash too.

  3. My parents had a smaller and less expensive looking set of classics. I don't think anyone in the family ever read them.

  4. I've never written anything in the margin of a book, let alone 'Man vs. Nature' - sacrilegious, or so I was taught as a child.

  5. I loved my copy of Grimm's too and would frighten myself to death reading them at night. I was also brought up never to scribble in books or read whilst eating. The only books allowed to have food stains were recipe books.

    1. Now that you mention it, I can remember the librarian continually reminding us not to eat and read. I try to limit my intake now only to wine while reading. The stains are limited in color to red and white.

  6. We have some classics spread around our bookcases but not a series like the Havard Classics. I have read most of them at one time or another, some more than once!

    1. Your good education shows up in your excellent posts!

  7. "seized the white perimeter" - "an impression along the verge" -- Love those! I'm still laughing at the observation about writing "Man vs Nature" because that's the one my students could always catch. Maybe they left an "impression along the verge."

    1. I'm crazy about Billy Collins.

  8. That looks like a fascinating set.

  9. My grandparents had the Harvard Classics -- I think my brother's got 'em now...and ditto on Billy Collins. He's something!

  10. Wow, a great set! Yes, I must admit that I too have written in some books! I also have a horrible habit of dog earring the ends to return back to something! Yikes!

  11. Thanks for this wonderful post. I hadn't heard of Harvard Classics. Or the poem...which I love. Yes I scribbled in the margins...but only my own books and always in pencil. Love that line "anonymous men catching a ride into the future on a vessel more lasting than themselves".

  12. A lovely treasure collected by your father, it's worth more then just the price one pays for it.

  13. A wonderful set of books. We were taught never to write in margins or even turn down the corner of a page. My mother was great at inscribing a message in the front; a birthday message, for example, with the date. Makes the books special.

  14. I would never have dared to write in a book but always enjoyed scribbling that I would find in second hand books. It took me years before I dared to write in my cookbooks!!
    I had to google Billy Collins!

  15. The mere thought of the collection of Collier's Classics gave me goosebumps. How precious they must have been to your father.

  16. I don't believe we ever had any of the classics in our limited library, but the covers were worn off and pages missing from two especially beloved stories from Little Golden Books: "The Little Engine That Could" and "Scuffy The Tugboat". Not classics in the accepted sense, but classics in their own right. I was so glad to find those two stories, in especial, still in print when I had my children, and amazed to discover them still around when my grandchildren began arriving. Oh, & I scribbled and drew in our family dictionary when I was little. Sorry Brett. :->

  17. My grandparents had an encyclopedia set like this from the 1930s which I used to explore when I lived with them. The idea that a small collection of books and information were all you need seems quaint now in the age of the internet.

  18. I don't think I've ever read the word 'scriptoria' before. The monks' work of copying the scriptures was beautifully addressed in this poem. What Dr Elliot said on the elements of a liberal education intrigued me. I mean the mention of numbers - 15 minutes and five foot. I love it when I spot indications that variables can be easily quantified.