My decades-long journey of five feet

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. Someone else pleads for Vol. 33 to complete a set.

Sorry, I'm not ready to sell. What? Give up Herodotus in Egypt, Tacitus in Germany, and Sir Francis Drake going around the world?

To be honest, I would give them up before Benjamin Franklin in Vol. 1. I love to picture his father having a friend or neighbor over at mealtime so their conversation might "improve the minds of his children."

One result was young Franklin's indifference to what was on the table:

"This has been a convenience to me in traveling, where my companions have been sometimes very unhappy for want of a suitable gratification of their more delicate, because better instructed, tastes and appetites."

In Vol. 2, Marcus Aurelius - the Roman emperor who used to need no more introduction than Harry Potter - begins the day unworried about whom he might meet:

"I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him. For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth."

I see a scrap sticking up from Vol. 28. Henry David Thoreau writes about walking:

"Of course it is of no use to direct our steps to the woods, if they do not carry us thither. I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit."

I am still trying to find what suits the capacity of my age and knowledge. I'm out of space, if not of dog-earing. But I notice another marker, one of those punched strips torn from the side of old-fashioned printer paper. It's in Vol. 39, saving a place for Victor Hugo, whose "modern times" of 1827 resemble today in the prevalence of drama (now extended from stage to movies, TV, video, and Internet):

"Primitive times are lyrical, ancient times epical, modern times dramatic," Hugo writes, citing the Bible, Homer, and Shakespeare. He did not predict that his own "Hunchback of Notre Dame" would become an animated cartoon.

AS FOR Shakespeare (Vol. 46), he'd not be replaced by NBC's "West Wing." The show's set in the White House, not an Elizabethan royal court, and we don't know who'll remember it in 400 years. But its latter-day rulers, courtiers, heroines, and fools have caught a wide audience as surely as Shakespeare did in his time.

Editor Eliot went beyond his original 50 volumes to bring out 20 more volumes of Harvard Classics - this time all fiction. Will the next five-foot shelf have to find a place for today's mass-media storytelling?

Before then, I must stay awake through "The Thousand and One Nights" (Vol. 16). After all, it's 300 pages shorter than "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

QR Code to My decades-long journey of five feet
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today