“A big leather-bound volume makes an ideal razor strap. A thin book is useful to stick under a table with a broken caster to steady it. A large, flat atlas can be used to cover a window with a broken pane. And a thick, old-fashioned heavy book with a clasp is the finest thing in the world to throw at a noisy cat.” - Mark Twain
I can only speculate on what Twain would have done had he managed to get his hands on this week’s book. Or, rather, books.
This week’s item is actually 50 books, covering nearly 500 works of literature and critical essays across a span of approximately 22,000 pages, stretching for a total of five famous feet.
In the late nineteenth century, legendary Harvard president, chemist, and later ambassador to England Charles W. Eliot (1834-1926) began frequently claiming that any person could obtain a full liberal education by simply dedicating 15 minutes every day to reading from a specific canon of books that could fit entirely onto a five foot-long shelf. In 1908, the publisher Peter Collier (of Collier’s Weekly and who specialized in publishing multi-volume sets of noted authors) challenged Eliot to prove his assertion. Eliot -- who was about to retire and was looking for a project to financially support him after Harvard -- collaborated with English professor William Neilson (who did most of the serious work of editing the texts and writing the introductions) and from 1909 (ironically, the same year Peter Collier died) to 1910, P. F. Collier & Son published the first edition of the Harvard Classics series -- or, as it has come to be known more colloquially, “Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf”. More precisely, the total length of the 50-volume set comes to five feet and six inches.
The series was designed to be an entire college education course in a single set of books. As Neilson wrote: “The Five-Foot Shelf, with its introductions, notes, guides to reading, and exhaustive indexes, may claim to constitute a reading course unparalleled in comprehensiveness and authority.” The series was immensely popular, thanks in large part to Eliot’s celebrity and Collier’s aggressive marketing campaign. By 1929 approximately 350,000 complete sets had been sold; that’s 17.85 million volumes, 7.7 billion pages, and, of course, 1.93 million feet of books (that’s 365 miles, or roughly the distance from Boston, Massachusetts to Dover, Delaware). In 1917, Collier followed up on the series with an added twenty volume Classics of Fiction shelf, also selected by Eliot and a popular Junior Classics series followed for younger readers. Subsequent editions of the Harvard Classics appeared throughout the twentieth century, particularly into the 1930s; today a hardcover set is available from Easton Press and a paperback version from Kessinger. In 2001 the contents of the series were also made available online from Bartleby, where you will also find a full table of contents for the various volumes.
This ubiquity of publication, even of the first edition, combined with the fact that the set is not often broken up, has resulted in the fact that the series is not remarkably rare. According to literary critic Adam Kirsch -- whose 2001 article on the books for the Harvard Magazine is perhaps one of the best accounts of the story behind the Five Foot Shelf -- entire sets are often to be found on eBay for around $300, though many dealers are selling the full set now for between $400 to $1,000 and individual volumes for anything from $3 to $125. Randolph Holhut, in another well considered essay on the set, its shortcomings, and its relevance today, comments that he purchased the fifty-one volumes at a flea market for $5: “the literary bargain of the century,” he admits. Another book blogger remarks that she got 17 volumes for $20 and, amusingly, one of the commenters on her post adds that he actually came by his set because it was included as part of an antique bookcase he bought. At this point I should observe that my set arrived at my house stacked in a laundry basket, a free donation to Tarquin Tar’s Bookcase by one of my partner’s then-coworkers who needed the extra shelf space for books that she “actually would read”.
Each volume is hard-bound in pebbled blue cloth, with spine titles that look like they may have once been gilt but are now so worn as to appear like blind tooling. A white Harvard insignia is on the spines below the title of each volume and a white volume number (very often faded) is below that. The pages measure 12.5cm x 19.5cm and are of a firm, though not entirely acid-free stock with no evident watermarks. Each volume was printed in octavo, but the gatherings are not signed; the pagination runs variously, usually between 300 and 450 pages per volume, and each contains blank flyleaves front and back. Facing the title page in each volume is an illustrative plate. The title page itself includes a red stamp of the series insignia; many of the title pages also claim the volume is "Illustrated" but in each the only illustration is the initial plate facing the title page. According to the colophon found on the ultimate page of content, the books were designed by William Patten, who worked for the Collier Press.
Because Neilson very often used versions of texts based on other editors’ works, the copyright pages often provide dates, publishers, and editors antecedent to the Harvard Classics imprint. For example, the copyright notice on Volume 49, Epic and Saga, observes beneath the Collier copyright (1910) that “‘Beowulf’ is published by special arrangement with Professor Francis B. Gummere / Copyright 1909 / By the Macmillan Company”.
To help the printer keep his work in order, the foot of each title page has a small-font indication of the volume number, the series (“HC”), and a cryptic “I” or “A” (either a gathering mark -- though since the other gatherings are unsigned, this seems unlikely -- or perhaps some indication of the issue number). In some places the speed with which the machine-presses were run is suggested by occasional blurring caused by dancing type or running ink (see below). Overall, though, Patten and Collier did a solid job producing a sturdy set of books meant to be handled, consulted, and passed down through the generations.
I am having some difficulty ascertaining precisely how my set fits into the print run of the first edition of 1910. Many dealers and writers remark that their copies are bound in red cloth; mine is in blue. Most accounts of the set casually remark that the set consists of fifty-one volumes, not fifty (as mine does; Bartleby’s online version actually skips Volume 50 and goes straight from 49 to 51 -- for those interested, therefore, in reading the contents of this 50th edition, including Eliot’s informative remarks on his project’s intentions, a rough plain-text version is available online). In these instances Volume 51 is titled Lectures and consists of scholarly essays grouped into historically relevant disciplinary categories, to accompany the preceding volumes’ primary texts; these essays were mostly contributed by Eliot and Neilson’s colleagues at Harvard. My set’s Volume 50 consists of “The Editor’s Introduction”, a “Reader’s Guide” to the series (which provides an introductory paragraph to six disciplinary-based “courses” and then refers the reader to the appropriate volume and selection for relevant primary texts), and three indices (a first-line index for the verse works, a general index, and a chronological index). At the start of the volume is a profile photogravure portrait of Eliot (shown above). The 51st volume actually was appended to the series later, in 1914 (a 52nd volume with an entirely separate Reader/Study Guide appeared even later). Given all of this, I am inclined to view my set as a later issue of the 1910 edition, perhaps the second state.
There is apparently no marginalia in my copies, though I confess to only having given each volume a cursory glance-through. The books are generally in good condition, though the covers are often bumped, faded, or slightly stained. It is evident, despite their good shape, that some use of them has been made: several of the apparently more frequently read volumes (such as the volume on English Renaissance poetry, the index volume, and even the first volume of the set) have splitting spines within the binding and a few have scraps of paper left in places to apparently mark a reader’s place.
Eliot's series has often been raked across the coals of political correctness and damned to the pits of academic inconsequence for being one more instrument of deadwhitemaledness domination of the western literary canon. There are no women writers in all 22,000 pages and nearly all of the men who are included come from Europe (and most of those from England). In addressing how he chose what he chose (see his remarks in Volume 50, to which I have linked above) Eliot was candid in some respects, but in other places it seems unfair to anachronistically apply modern standards of equitable and reasonable inclusion to an academic who could not help but be a product of his times. This does not excuse the absence of more diverse writers and thinkers from the series, but it has served as a very fruitful opening for modern commentators to build on Eliot and Neilson’s work and to critically question how we today might go about attempting a similar project in our own time. We have responded with ideas as varied as Allen Ruppersberg’s artistic take on the idea and NPR’s democratically-structured enumeration of texts. Recent commentators have noted, in addition, that Eliot had no compunctions about denying many deadwhitemale writers and thinkers from inclusion despite the fact that today we consider them essential: there is no Freud, no Nietzsche, no Marx, no Aristotle, no Aquinas, no Hegel.
In sum, the series reveals more about Eliot than it does about “western civilization”, or, as put by Christopher Beha, author of The Whole Five Feet, an account of his undertaking to read the entire series: “They provide a picture not just of the Classics themselves but of the world -- northeastern America in the first decade of the 20th Century -- that complied them.” In the included works we see Eliot’s political biases towards libertarianism and stoicism in the selection of texts on statecraft and governance, his academic biases in his preference for humanistic essays about science rather than actual texts of science, his subjective assessment of literature and poetry with practical applications as having greater value than that with mere aesthetic attractions, and his preference for the personal and autobiographical over the empirical, the imaginative, and the abstract in almost every category. (Kirsch notes that Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography occupies the prime place of Volume I and suggests that perhaps this was Eliot’s “ideal work of philosophy”: “a man overcoming obstacles, doing useful work, going to bed early, and rising healthy, wealthy, and wise”.)
Inevitably, the most usual attraction of the Harvard Classics -- like any massive work of writing, such as the Oxford English Dictionary or The Bible -- is either in the marathon attempt to read the entire work or the simple abandonment of the work to the shelf as mere wall-dressing to present the facade of learning (or, as Finley Peter Dunne put it, "Th' first thing to have in a libry is a shelf. / Fr'm time to time this can be decorated with lithrachure. / But th' shelf is th' main thing"). There are, of course, other possibilities; for Boston journalist David Mehegan the series became a tangible, moving memorial for his deceased grandfather; for Malcolm X they became a means to transform his time in prison into an opportunity to explore the history and culture of his oppressor; for Bing Crosby in the 1956 film High Society they became a short-cut joke as a way of revealing something about his character. But in all these uses, there seems always to be the underlying tension between the sense that one ought to pick up the books and read through them and the sheer, daunting weight of all that paper and ink.
As Twain put it, “A classic is something that everyone wants to have read and nobody wants to read.”