Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf


Charles William Elliot (Public Domain)

I recently came across a post announcing that I could “Read the World’s Best Books for Free with the Harvard Classics“. Actually, the article is quite useful in giving the background, contents, strengths and deficiencies of this selection of great works assembled by Harvard President Charles William Elliot in 1909. The reason we can now access this collection for free (in electronic form) is that it is now in the public domain, its copyright having expired. The article also gives links to sites where The Harvard Classics are available and tips for reading this collection on an assortment of e-readers.  All in all, quite helpful.

The Harvard Classics, published for many years by P.F. Collier occupies five feet on one’s shelves and Elliot maintained that by reading from this collection for 15 minutes a day, one could attain to the elements of a liberal education. I figured out that if you followed Dr. Elliot’s advice and read 10 pages a day from this 22,000 page collection, you could finish this project in just over six years. My brother bought a print set years ago. I have to ask him if he ever was able to get anywhere close to reading through it.

The article explored the underlying attraction of acquiring sets like this or the more extensive “Great Books of the Western World” assembled by University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins, and professor Mortimer Adler. For any of us who love to read, there is this daunting, and maybe depressing awareness, that we cannot hope to read even the tiniest fraction of the books published, and even books that might be considered of note. “So many books, so little time.” These might not be all the greatest books, but it is a great start and can certainly keep us occupied for some time. And as the article mentions, it saves me from the nagging question of what to read next.

I also wonder if there is an attraction, exacerbated by the internet, and all the sources of free great books, of succumbing to the temptation to hoard knowledge. It is an alluring temptation indeed to think that one might have access with the flip of a switch, a touch of a screen, to the libraries of the world and the knowledge of the ages.

I know in times past I’ve been tempted to acquire one of these sets by the thought that by reading these I could be wiser, more literate, more understanding of the existential realities of life. Then my wife, the practical one,says to me, “we have no place for another five foot shelf of books (or more with the Great Books), and besides, if you have that much time for reading, I’ve got work around the house for you!”

There is a personality typing system called the Enneagram that consists of nine types. Each type has certain strengths and an “underside”. Type five is the observer. They are curious, insightful, and sometimes at their best visionary and innovative.  Their underside is hoarding–of knowledge, of energy, and even of physical objects. I’ve wondered if many bibliophiles (myself included) fit into this type.

Hoarding is a way we make ourselves feel secure, and perhaps even godlike, when what is healthier is a life of giving and sharing and mutually interdependent relationships. Writing about the books I read is a way of giving away what I learned and sharing the goodness I’ve found. And in recent years, there has been a certain liberation in boxing up and giving away or selling hundreds of books.

One of the gifts of growing older is realizing our limitations and to treasure what we have rather than building illusionary “castles in the air”. Even a freely downloaded Harvard Classics is not a temptation for me. I know I won’t read all that is in it, and I will read a number of other things, many of which I will enjoy and profit from and share with others.

Colossians 2:2-3 speaks of all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge being hidden in Christ. As a Christ-follower, I don’t have to pursue these hubristic dreams of literacy and great knowledge. It is clear that there is one who has these qualities–and it isn’t me!

None of this is to discourage you from acquiring such a collection. I wonder about the reading of such books on e-readers. Yet I do believe in the value of great works of writing, both classic and contemporary. I just hope you won’t look to them to do what books alone cannot do in your life.

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