| "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
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
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
"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
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.
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
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.)
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.
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.
is the list provided by archive.org of Eliot's selections, with my
comments are mine, of today, and I only used my memory, and provided
links to the Wikipedia for background,
Franklin's autobiography and don't know the other two, and am not and
never was religious.
|2 Plato, Epictetus,
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.
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.
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.
Essays and English Traits
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
Augustine, The Confessions. Thomas A Kempis, Imitation of Christ
read all of the first, which is impressive, and some of the latter,
which bored me.
|8 Nine Greek
| 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
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.
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
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.
Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans
very well worth reading, and there are good translations in Penguin.
| 13 Virgil's
enough Latin to read him with appreciation in Latin, I read bits of him
in translation, which didn't much impress me.
Don Quixote, Part 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.
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
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.
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.
English Drama: Dryden, Sheridan, Goldsmith, Shelley, Browning, Byron
some of this, but not very much.
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
|20 Dante. The
| 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
|22 Homer. The
| 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
|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.
Burke. On the Sublime; Reflections on the Revolution in
| 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.
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.
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.
and American Essays
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
|33 Voyages and
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.
Voltaire, Rousseau, Hobbes
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).
read a little of each of these, but proper appreciation probably needs
more knowledge of their times and language (if not modernized) than I
| 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
is well worth reading too, but clearly utopian. Luther wrote a
lively German but was a zealot.
| 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,
was a great writer and a great mind, and I have a four-volume edition
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.
Jenner, Lister, Pasteur
| 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
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.
| 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
& Fletcher. If you are interested in this, you should know Hazlitt wrote an interesting volume on the Elizabethan writers, also
with many quotations.
Thoughts and Minor Works
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
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
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!