The Harvard Classics: Dr. Eliot and the Five-Foot Bookshelf

“There are 850,000 volumes in the Imperial Library at Paris. If a man were to read industriously from dawn to dark for sixty years, he would die in the first alcove. Would that some charitable soul, after losing a great deal of time among the false books and alighting upon a few true ones, which made him happy and wise, would name those which have been bridges, or ships to carry him safely over dark morasses and barren oceans, into the heart of sacred cities, into palaces and temples.”1

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

One of the significant causes of modern anxiety is the immense choice at our fingertips. Any person with modest means and intellect can effectively pursue endless opportunities. The contemporary person can travel the globe, pursue any hobby, and consume infinite information. 

In this last point, I find myself in daily battle, where Dr. Eliot and his five-foot bookshelf may be my Alexander the Great, conquering the vast expanse of information and fighting the war on too much choice.

“Emerson’s wish, which is the great need and wish of thousands of earnest, ambitious people, has been fulfilled. The fulfillment is The Harvard Classics, originally marketed as Dr. Eliot’s Five-Foot Shelf of Books.”1

Dr. Eliot was the president of Harvard for over 40 years and is credited with creating the Harvard that exists today. He was considered one of the great scholars of the 19th and 20th centuries, and Theodore Roosevelt called him “the only man in the world I envy.”3 When I learned of The Harvard Classics series, I became fascinated with its existence and the potential to synthesize the world’s vast library into a single collection of the great works for a well-rounded education. I was not alone in this as Dr. Eliot was inundated with requests after mentioning in a speech that “a three-foot shelf would be sufficient to hold enough books to give a liberal education to anyone who would read them with devotion.”2 Upon further reflection and following the request of a well-known publisher, PF Collier, to publish the collection, Dr. Eliot revised his estimate from a three-foot to a five-foot shelf. 

The Harvard Classics was not meant to be a collection of the best books, although the bulk would fall into that category. Instead, “the purpose of The Harvard Classics is one different from that of collections in which the editor’s aim has been to select a number of best books; 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. Within the limits of fifty volumes, containing about twenty-three thousand pages, [Dr. Eliot’s] task was to provide the means of obtaining such knowledge of ancient and modern literature as seemed 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 reflection which humanity in its intermittent and irregular progress from barbarism to civilization has acquired and laid up.”1

So now we have a collection of twenty-three thousand pages curated by one of the great American scholars, which can be purchased, thanks to the public domain, for $0.49 on Kindle. Therefore, in 25 pages a day, you can conclude an education that includes Plato, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Milton, Emerson, St. Augustine, Darwin, Plutarch, Aesop, Dante, Homer, Swift, Shakespeare, Descartes, Voltaire, Machiavelli, Locke, Newton, Chaucer, Bronte, Longfellow, sacred Christian, Hebrew, Buddhist, and Hindu religious writings (and I’ve only scratched the surface) in two and a half years. 

The incredible beauty of the collection is two-fold. One is that it answers the question, “what shall I read tonight? How often does that question come to all of us? Magazines, newspapers, the books of the day – all pall upon us with their deadly monotony of the commonplace. We want something to carry us out of ourselves, to take us a million miles from our humdrum existence, to stimulate our minds to fresh endeavor, to give us a new viewpoint upon our problems, to enable us to get a fresh hold upon ourselves. Then it is, that the Harvard Classics find their place.”1

The second is that “Dr. Eliot’s Five-Foot Shelf of Books free you from the personal limitations of your age, of your country, of your personal experiences; they give you access to all ages, to all countries, to all experience. They take you out of the rut of life in the town you live in and make you a citizen of the world. They offer you the companionship of the most interesting and influential men and women who have ever lived; they make it possible for you to travel without leaving home, and to have vacations without taking time from your work. They offer you – if you will only accept their gifts – friends, travel, the knowledge of life; they offer you education, the means of making your life what you want it to be.”1

So, in the same way, that Will Hunting said you could have gotten the same education as Harvard with $2 in late charges at the public library, you can receive a complete education of literature and life with $0.49 on Amazon. 


1Fifteen Minutes a Day (Classic Reprint): The Reading Guide: Eliot, Charles William: 9781397686817: Books

2Harvard Classics – Wikipedia

3Charles William Eliot – Wikipedia


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