Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

My Decades-Long Journey of Five Feet

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

My Decades-Long Journey of Five Feet

Article excerpt

This is not about Harry Potter.

But I have a reason for comforting all the young bookworms and consenting adults who've discovered that Harry's latest adventure weighs in at 734 pages, twice as many as "Huckleberry Finn."

I've been living with and not finishing the 22,000 pages of The Harvard Classics for 40 years. Now I'm sitting at a computer about three steps from those 50 volumes edited by Charles W. Eliot. They neatly fill a five-foot shelf as advertised when they came out nine decades ago, a half century before our set was handed down to us.

It all goes back to a remark by Mr. Eliot, then president of Harvard University, who said that "a five-foot shelf would hold books enough to give in the course of years a good substitute for a liberal education."

I've heard people claim something similar about reading The Home Forum in this newspaper, which began in 1908 on the eve of The Harvard Classics. Both ventures spoke to a public urge for self- improvement. That urge is now addressed by instructional videos (I've just seen one on African drumming), CD-ROMs, professors on tape, Web classrooms, and books, books, books.

Oops! A piece of paper flutters to the floor as I open Vol. 3, whose gold-stamped spine says "Bacon, Milton's Prose, Thos. Browne." It's a letter from a quarter century ago recommending several essays by Francis Bacon. I must have taken the hint and delved self- improvingly into these essays. Dozens of pages are dog-eared. Surely my correspondent agreed with Bacon's line:

"Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider."

Classics tend to be worth the weighing, though they're always being redefined, as in a recent seminar at Harvard itself. I keep dipping in to these volumes when someone mentions something that "everybody" ought to know.

What everybody ought to know keeps changing, of course. It's not all by DWMs (dead white males), as most of Eliot's chosen authors would be called by those who would like to expand the classic universe through gender, race, geography, and nationality.

Even the 19th century had gone beyond the Roman sense of "classic," referring to citizens of the chief class with an income of a certain sum. It's discussed in Vol. 32 by C.A. Saint-Beuve, introduced as "in the view of many, the greatest literary critic of the world."

But, for all the wonderfully diverse voices still to be heard, I'd rather add another five feet instead of replacing what's there.

Maybe I'm not alone in my fandom. The Harvard Classics went into a 62nd printing, according to a Web site with links to booksellers. Click on the listed Vol. 14, "Don Quixote," and you're whisked to Johns Hopkins University for a digital exhibition on Cervantes and his novel. In a literary chat room, someone puts 47 volumes on the market. …

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