Sunday, August 10, 2014

A Birthday and a Project

Today is my birthday.  As it so happens, it is my 50th birthday.  One cannot reach such a milestone without wanting to mark it in some special way, or by launching some special project.  Hence, this post.

Several years ago I became aware of the Harvard Classics.  For those who may be unfamiliar with these, they are a set of 51 volumes of some of the world's greatest or most important writing.  They were first published in the early 1900's as a project inspired by the then-president of Harvard University, Dr. Charles Eliot.

Dr. Eliot had been heard to say on many occasions that the foundation of a complete liberal arts education could be easily achieved by the reading and study of the books that would fill a five-foot shelf.  The concept of Dr. Eliot's "five-foot shelf" and what exactly would go on it (and the marketing possibilities therein) soon attracted the attention of the P.F. Collier & Son Publishing Corporation, who convinced Dr. Eliot to put his money where his mouth was, and to select the books that should go in this collection.  The books would then be published under the aegis of the "Harvard Classics," since, indeed, Dr. Eliot recruited the expertise of many of the professors from Harvard in his selection process.

So, after learning about this set, I decided I wanted to acquire it, with the intention of reading it one day.  The Harvard Classics, at least up until a few years ago at least, was still in print, albeit usually in fine leather-bound editions that are not meant so much for reading as for decoration.  I knew I definitely couldn't afford a set like that, nor could I afford a complete vintage set.  Although they go for pretty much a song on eBay because of the hundreds of thousands of copies that have been printed over the last 100 years, these sets are still pretty pricey, going for upwards of $200-$300.

A quick perusal of the riches of eBay uncovers something else, however -- the multitude of sellers who are offering odd volumes of the Harvard Classics from every imaginable set that was ever printed.  Cloth-bound, bonded leather, genuine leather -- one can generally have one's pick if one is willing to look long and hard enough.  While these odd volumes usually cost more than if they were purchased as part of a vintage set, they had two immediate and irresistible advantages to me:

1) The cost of a complete set of Harvard Classics could easily be amortized over a number of months or even years, and my wallet would probably hardly even notice the expense; and

2) By buying the set in this way, I would end up with a funky and fun mismatched set that would look very cool on my own "five-foot shelf."

My complete collection, so far...

A close-up of my mismatched-on-purpose Harvard Classics

By my reckoning, I still need 14 volumes to complete my set, but right now, instead of buying any more, I figure I should go ahead and maybe start actually reading some of them.

So today, on this first day of my 51st year on the planet (and no, that doesn't make me feel old AT ALL, why do you ask?), I am going to officially embark on the reading of the first of the 51 volumes of the Harvard Classics.  Hopefully it will not take me the next 50 years, although it might.

The first volume contains Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, the Journal of John Woolman, and William Penn's Fruits of Solitude.  Very Colonial, it seems.  The Franklin is of course one of those enduring works that has stood the test of time, and evidently the other two seemed important back in the early 1900's.  I wonder if they will still be worth reading?  I don't imagine this is going to be a terribly quick process, so I will from time to time post updates on how my Harvard Classics journey is going (or if I have given it up altogether).  Wish me luck!


  1. Beautiful books. Beautiful idea for a reading project. I am envious of your mismatched collection. Such collections seem to have more character - and are more likely to have actually been read - than a complete set bought "all at once" I suspect.

    I love the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and have read it several times. It always leaves me with the feeling that I, too, could accomplish "great things." That hasn't happened so far... :-)

    Happy belated birthday!

    1. Thanks for the birthday wishes! Yes, I am very fond of my mismatched set. It has way more "character" than a matched set. I was interested to find out that you love Franklin's autobiography, because I am finding it pretty dry. However, it's quite a bit different from the other reading I have been doing lately, and one has to retrain one's brain to read such prose. I will persevere, however!

  2. Uh, oh. (Re Franklin's autobiography) the earlier parts were my favorites too - I think maybe part of the appeal to me is the "rags to riches" element, and his success as largely a self-made man. I've read a couple other biographies of him as well, one by Isaacson, who also wrote the recent Steve Jobs bio. I've also heard the autobiography described as the first self-help book ever written.

    Oh well, hope you enjoy it more as you progress... :-)