Given my love for books, it is no wonder that I especially love collections. There is one collection that I especially enjoy not only for the contents but also for the history behind the collection. The Harvard Classics was published in fifty-one volumes in 1909. With more than twenty-three thousand pages it is a very comprehensive collection.
Our own set of Harvard Classics
Some say the collection is fifty books. The additional book is an anthology of lectures that completes the set of fifty one.
My paternal grandmother introduced me to the Harvard Classics when I was a small child. Grandma was a school teacher and a book lover and she valued her set of Harvard Classics above all books except for the Holy Bible and her dictionary. She managed to have nine children and still teach school. On occasion she taught in a neighboring county. She took the school-aged children with her to board for the week and attend her one-room school and employed a live-in housekeeper to care for the house and the smaller children. She and the children would come home on Friday afternoon and return to the boarding house Sunday night. Grandma wasn't much for cooking and cleaning and she treasured her years as a teacher and a life-long learner.
Grandma allowed me to read some of the books, but only when I was the only grandchild around. She didn't want her books damaged. When I was a teen, she started receiving the "Reader's Digest" Condensed Books. She had always said I should not read condensed versions of anything because the editors did not always know what parts should be eliminated in the process. When I mentioned that to Grandma she said, "Well, I'm getting pretty old and I may not have time to read all the things I want to read. Reading a condensed version is better than not reading the book at all."
I regret that I did not get to have Grandma's set of Harvard Classics, but I always think of her when I pull one of ours from the shelf. Like many others, Grandma bought the Harvard Classics from a traveling salesman. It was common in the early 1900s for peddlars to visit rural areas to sell their wares. Grandma saved a little money every week in order to purchase the next book in the collection. I'm not sure how long it took for her to complete the set.
You will find the contents of the Harvard Classics absolutely mind-boggling. Here is a quick summary. Edited by Charles William Eliot, the collection was also known as "Dr. Eliot's Five Foot Shelf." His stated desire was that the collection would be "all things to all men." (Remember the time here folks. Gender neutrality wasn't even a dream back then.)
Who knows how many young men and women enhanced their educations and broadened their thinking with the Harvard Classics? The collection is amazing more than a century after it was published. Wonder why no one has come up with an anthology like this for the twentieth century?