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  Apr 7, 2012                  

The Harvard Classics

"A good book is the precious life-blood of  master-spirit"

I have several times written in Nederlog about my love of books and reading. Here is a list:

So it should come as no surprise that

where there is a wonderful amount of digitized books (and other matters) is one of my favourite sites, whence I have downloaded the past few years many a classic that I had not been able to get into my hands on paper.

It turns out that it contains an interesting collection called

which was compiled in 50 volumes, plus an index volume, by the President of Harvard University George W. Eliot, put together in 1910. Here is the text of the last item for the most part (with my diplomatic corrections of some typos) and with the list of books, with some comments inserted by me:


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 and first published in 1909. The most comprehensive and well-researched anthology of all time comprises both the 50-volume "5-foot shelf of books" and the the 20-volume Shelf of Fiction. Together they cover every major literary figure, philosopher, religion, folklore and historical subject through the twentieth century. In 1910, Dr. Charles W. Eliot, then President of Harvard University, put together an extraordinary library of "all the books needed for a real education."

"Dr.Charles W.Eliot, the former Harvard president who edited the series, maintained that if one read just 15 minutes a day from the 51 volumes he assembled, it would constitute "a good substitute for a liberal education to anyone who would read them with devotion."

The Editor's Introduction to the Harvard Classics

"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. Within the limits of fifty volumes, containing about 22,000 pages, I was to provide the means of obtaining such a knowledge of ancient and modern literature as seems essential to the twentieth century idea of a cultivated man. The best acquisition of a cultivated man is a liberal frame of mind or way of thinking; but there must be added to that possession acquaintance with the prodigious store of recorded discoveries, experiences, and reflections which humanity in its intermittent and irregular progress from barbarism to civilization has acquired and laid up. From that store I proposed to make such a selection as any intellectually ambitious American family might use to advantage, even if their early opportunities of education had been scanty."

The purpose of The Harvard Classics is, therefore, one very different from that of the many collections in which the editor's aim has been to select the hundred or the fifty best books in the world; it is nothing less than the purpose to present so ample and characteristic a record of the stream of the world's thought that the observant reader's mind shall be enriched, refined, and fertilized by it.


My comments: These introductory paragraphs strike me mostly as stilted prose, that was no doubt well-intended but is somewhat misleading in several respects:

The collection is a fine one, but does not "cover every major literary figure, philosopher, religion, folklore and historical subject through the twentieth century" (what about - say - Aristotle, Euclid, Lucretius, Ockham, Hume, Fielding, Dr. Johnson, Diderot, to name just a few I can't find in the list that follows below)? It is indeed "an extraordinary library" well worth perusing and reading, but it certainly does not comprise "all the books needed for a real education", also not in 1910.

The notion that that if one read just 15 minutes a day from the 51 volumes he assembled, it would constitute "a good substitute for a liberal education to anyone who would read them with devotion"seems rather misleading to me, also in 1910.

Actually, the project of trying to produce some "fifty volumes, containing about 22,000 pages, I was to provide the means of obtaining such a knowledge of ancient and modern literature as seems essential to the twentieth century idea of a cultivated man" seems to have been undertaken several times, notably - for me, since I have quite a few volumes of these, acquired in antiquarian bookshops over the years - the series of Great Books, put together for Encyclopedia Brittanica by Robert Maynard Hutchins, in 60 volumes, that can be considered supplementary to Eliot's list, with which it overlaps to a considerable extent, though it seems to me a better selection that Eliot's. (I may later return to this list in Nederlog.)

Eliot's saying that his collection is such that "any intellectually ambitious American family might use to advantage, even if their early opportunities of education had been scanty" seems to me again a bit misleading: Not only must the "American family be intellectually ambitious" - it must be reasonably intellectually talented as well, especially if they did not get something like a decent grammar school education (of the quality then, not now: the last 40 years grammar schools have been much levelled) to start with.

Finally, personally I do not care much for the schoolmasterly notion (that sounds like the sentiments of a farmer mucking his fields) " that the observant reader's mind shall be enriched, refined, and fertilized by it": I like to read for pleasure, in such subjects that interest me, and there is little profit or real learning in trying to acquire a subject one has little real interest in or no talent or taste for.

Here is the list provided by archive.org of Eliot's selections, with my brief comments:

The comments are mine, of today, and I only used my memory, and provided links to the Wikipedia for background,
1   Benjamin Franklin, John Woolman, William Penn
I liked Franklin's autobiography and don't know the other two, and am not and never was religious.
2   Plato, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius
Here amongst what I presume philosophers writing in Greek I sorely miss Aristotle, Epicurus and Lucian. But indeed I also was impressed by the ones Eliot lists.
3   Bacon, Milton's Prose, Thomas Browne
Bacon's Essays are fine if rather stilted and there are some interesting parts in his other works (e.g. about Idols of the tribe) but I am missing Galileo's works, which also are great prose, and a better foundation for science than Bacon's. I read very little of Milton's prose and also very little by Sir Thomas Browne. Also, if Browne shouldb be in the list, so should be Robert Burton. In either case, you'll find that 17th C English, as written by highly educated gentlemen of the time, was a very cultivated, with considerably longer sentences and more subtle wordplay and verbal wit than in later ages.
4   Milton's Complete Poems in English
I have read parts of Paradise Lost but found it, like his prose, mostly heavy going, mostly because it presumes an orientation and mind set that I don't have and don't know much about. Also, it seems to me quite a few of his comtemporaries, such as Hobbes and Winstanley, wrote better and are considerably more interesting.
5   Emerson. Essays and English Traits
I have read some of Emerson but wasn't much impressed. Also, I miss Thoreau here and other American writers of the time I like considerably better, such as Whitman, Melville and Hawthorne.
6   Burns. Poems and Songs
I have read some of Burn's poetry which is fine and likeable, though I suspect he has been lifted up by English and Scottish gentlemen because he was "a man of the people" who wrote in dialect, and whose great talent could not be denied.
7   Saint Augustine, The Confessions. Thomas A Kempis, Imitation of Christ
I have read all of the first, which is impressive, and some of the latter, which bored me.
8   Nine Greek Dramas
I was especially impressed by Sophocles and Aristophanes, and should remark that much depends on the translator and also that 19th C and early 20th C translations often are a bit stilted, unlike the originals.
9   Letters and Treatises of Cicero and Pliny
Cicero was a great writer, but he was rather vain. I did read a volume of letters of Pliny, which I didn't find very impressive.
10 Adam Smith. The Wealth of Nations
If you are at all interested in economics you should read this. It is fine clear prose, and far more realistic and fair than later academic books about economy.
11 Darwin. The Origin of Species
I read only part of the Origin but was much impressed by a Dutch titled book, also in the Project Gutenberg, I read when young, called "The Travel Around The World" when translated to English, where on sees Darwin describing, reasoning and explaining all the time. I think the Dutch was a translation of The Voyage of the Beagle, but since I read it around 14 don't recall well.
12 Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans
This is very well worth reading, and there are good translations in Penguin.
13 Virgil's Aeneid
Not having enough Latin to read him with appreciation in Latin, I read bits of him in translation, which didn't much impress me.
14 Cervantes. Don Quixote, Part I
Writers I admire admire Cervantes, but I did not like an English and a Dutch translation I tried, and must assume it is mostly due to the translator. It's similar for me with Rabelais.
15 Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress. Walton, Lives of Donne and
Walton I only read on angling, which is a very well-written, lively and interesting book, but personally I don't care for angling, since I think it's a cruel sport that is made up mostly of boredom. What I saw of Bunyan I didn't like.
16 The Thousand and One Nights
I suppose I read the most famous tales, but I am no great lover of fiction. Also, this seems to depend much on the translation. As far as naughty fictional tales are concerned, I like Boccacio's Decameron better.
17 Folk-Lore and Fable: Aesop, Grimm, Andersen
Again I suppose I've read the most famous of these at some point, in some collection. Of the three, I like Aesop the best, and Lafontaine better than any of these three.
18 Modern English Drama: Dryden, Sheridan, Goldsmith, Shelley, Browning, Byron
I read some of this, but not very much.
19 Goethe: Faust, Egmont, etc. Marlowe: Doctor Faustus
Of these, I didn't read Egmont, and read Goethe's Faust in German. Part I I liked, Part II (written much later) I found boring, and on the whole I liked Marlowe's Faustus more.
20 Dante. The Divine Comedy
I read part of Dorothy Sayers' translation in Penguin, but found it mostly heavy going, because it is terse, articulates a medieval mind set, and presupposes a lot of knowledge moderns have to find in footnotes.
21 Manzoni. I Promessi Sposi
I never saw this.
22 Homer. The Odyssey
This I read in several English translations and also a Dutch one. It seems rather a lot depends on the translation, and I find Homer a bit tiresome in his adjectives.
23 Dana. Two Years Before the Mast
This is unknown to me. I did read Marryat and some other prose by former captains of ships in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth century, which generally are interesting.
24 Burke. On the Sublime; Reflections on the Revolution in France, etc.
I don't know about the etc. but read the other two, which are very interesting and very well-written: Burke was a great writer (as both Dr. Johnson and Hazlitt testify) and also seems to have been a great conversationalist.
25 J. S. Mill and Thomas Carlyle
I read rather a lot of Mill, who was a good and clear both not a great writer, and read Carlyle's "Sartor Resortus", which I found mostly stilted.
26 Continental Drama
I did not check what is in here, and would guess  Moliere, Racine, Voltaire. I liked reading Moliere's plays.       
27 English Essays, Sidney to Macaulay
There were a lot of fine English essaysts. A lot depends on the selection, though, and I have read in various collections that were claimed to contain Great Essays that mostly bored me. A collection in book form of English essays without any by Hazlitt is not a good collection, it seems to me.   
28 English and American Essays
Very probably I have read fewer American essayists than English ones, to which I should add that generally I don't like 20th Century essayists, with a few exceptions, like Bertrand Russell and George Orwell. I often dislike literary essays: Minor professorial minds who pretend they can explain, judge and evaluate far greater minds and far greater - dead - writers than they are, usually in a pompous and pretentious ways. There are exceptions, such as I.A. Richards, but not many.
29 Darwin. Voyage of the Beagle
I think I read this in a Dutch translation when I was 12 or 14 and was much impressed by his reasoning all the time.
30 Faraday, Helmholtz, Kelvin, Newcomb, etc. (Scientific Papers)
I have read books by the first two, who both had very clear minds. Especially Faraday on his experiments with electricity is very impressive.
31 Cellini. Autobiography
This I read in a fine translation in Penguin, and liked a lot. Whether it's all true is very doubtful, but he wrote a fine autobiography, also informative about his own time.
32 Montaigne, Sainte-Beuve, Renan, etc.
I have read a little of the last two and wasn't much impressed by what I read, but I read all of Montaigne, several times, also in part on French, and was much impressed: He and Hazlitt are the greatest essayists I've read. There is a great English translation in Everyman's Library by Florio, in 3 volumes, from 1603, that Shakespeare also is supposed to have read. (Modern readers who find the beginning of Part I not to their taste should start with Part III or dip in anywhere.)
33 Voyages and Travels
This may be very interesting, because it generally is about real facts and real men, and also is anthropology before that was made into "a science", I don't much believe in, as "science" in its 20th C form.
34 Descartes, Voltaire, Rousseau, Hobbes
I have read much of the philosophical works of these authors, who all were great writers (also). As it happens, Hobbes and Voltaire seem to me a lot more sensible than Descartes and Rousseau, but that no doubt is in part a matter of one's taste, character and temperament (and I am classical rather than romantic).   
35 Froissart, Malory, Holinshed
I have read a little of each of these, but proper appreciation probably needs more knowledge of their times and language (if not modernized) than I have.
36 Machiavelli, More, Luther
I read some by all, though most by Machiavelli, who was a great writer and a great realist. If you want to know his real opinions, you should read his Discourses, which are better and longer than The Prince. More's Utopia is well worth reading too, but clearly utopian. Luther wrote a lively German but was a zealot.  
37 Locke, Berkeley, Hume
I have read nearly all of the philosophical works of each of these and found Locke, especially when compared with Leibniz or the other two mentioned here, disappointing. Berkeley was a great writer and a great mind, and I have a four-volume edition by Alexander Campbell Fraser, who wrote an excellent introduction in which he ably disposes of Berkeley's main doctrines, while making clear he was a great philosopher. Hume did not write as well as Berkeley, and had a very sharp mind, but my guess is that he owed more to Newton and Berkeley than he admitted.
38 Harvey, Jenner, Lister, Pasteur
I've only read brief bits by Harvey and Pasteur.
39 Famous Prefaces
40 English Poetry, 1
41 English Poetry, 2
42 English Poetry, 3
43 American Historical Documents
This I have made into one item in this list because I haven't checked the contents and much depends on the selection. What you should read if you haven't are The Federalist Papers.
44 Sacred Writings, 1
45 Sacred Writings, 2
This I have made into one item for a similar reason as the previous one. Also, being an atheist I am often not impressed by religious writings, though there have been some very able religious writers, and not only in Christianity, but also in Hinduism and Buddhism, especially in the schools of logic in the latter two traditions.
46 Elizabethan Drama, 1
47 Elizabethan Drama, 2
Again made into one item for lack of knowledge and reasons as above. Also, I do not know much of these, except Shakespeare, Marlowe, and some Jonson and Beaumont & Fletcher. If you are interested in this, you should know Hazlitt wrote an interesting volume on the Elizabethan writers, also with many quotations.
48 Pascal. Thoughts and Minor Works
I have read the former, and found it mostly very able rhetorics by a very religious man. But he was a great writer and a great mathematician, whose work on physics and mathematics is very clear and very readable.
49 Epic and Saga
Again it depends what's collected. I probably know little of this: I have read some Norwegian and Icelandic Saga, and it's mostly not my kind of stuff.

So... there you have the list, with clickable links (to the files on archive.org from which you can download these books on Eliot's list in various editions).

I reproduced and commented it because I like such lists and always have been a voracious reader, who much preferred reading a good book by a good mind over watching TV or having a lame "conversation" with a mediocre mind.

If you feel likewise, you may find rather a lot in the above to enjoy, or at least to investigate; and if you don't feel likewise, I suppose you need not bother, for as I feel I waste my time when I watch TV, the majority of those who enjoy watching TV would feel their precious time would be much wasted if they were to try to read Plato, Montaigne, Hobbes, or most any writer in the above list. But then again, many of that most excellent democratic majority, at least in Holland, are fine soccer players!

Corrections, if any are necessary, have to be made later.
-- April 8, 2012: Made some small corrections and added quite a few links. And there's a bit more in the next Nederlog.


As to ME/CFS (that I prefer to call ME):
1.  Anthony Komaroff Ten discoveries about the biology of CFS (pdf)
3.  Hillary Johnson The Why
4.  Consensus of M.D.s Canadian Consensus Government Report on ME (pdf)
5.  Eleanor Stein Clinical Guidelines for Psychiatrists (pdf)
6.  William Clifford The Ethics of Belief
7.  Paul Lutus

Is Psychology a Science?

8.  Malcolm Hooper Magical Medicine (pdf)
 Maarten Maartensz
ME in Amsterdam - surviving in Amsterdam with ME (Dutch)
 Maarten Maartensz Myalgic Encephalomyelitis

Short descriptions of the above:                

1. Ten reasons why ME/CFS is a real disease by a professor of medicine of Harvard.
2. Long essay by a professor emeritus of medical chemistry about maltreatment of ME.
3. Explanation of what's happening around ME by an investigative journalist.
4. Report to Canadian Government on ME, by many medical experts.
5. Advice to psychiatrist by a psychiatrist who understa, but nds ME is an organic disease
6. English mathematical genius on one's responsibilities in the matter of one's beliefs:

7. A space- and computer-scientist takes a look at psychology.
8. Malcolm Hooper puts things together status 2010.
9. I tell my story of surviving (so far) in Amsterdam/ with ME.
10. The directory on my site about ME.

See also: ME -Documentation and ME - Resources
The last has many files, all on my site to keep them accessible.

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