Sunday, November 23, 2014

A great (and free) literary resource

Courtesy of a link at Instapundit, I was led to an article in Open Culture that described the Harvard Classics series.

It was in 1909 ... before the advent of modernism and world war, that The Harvard Classics took shape. Compiled by Harvard’s president Charles W. Eliot and called at first Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf, the compendium of literature, philosophy, and the sciences, writes Adam Kirsch in Harvard Magazine, served as a “monument from a more humane and confident time” (or so its upper classes believed), and a “time capsule…. In 50 volumes.”

What does the massive collection preserve? For one thing, writes Kirsch, it’s “a record of what President Eliot’s America, and his Harvard, thought best in their own heritage.” Eliot’s intentions for his work differed somewhat from those of his English peers. Rather than simply curating for posterity “the best that has been thought and said” (in the words of Matthew Arnold), Eliot meant his anthology as a “portable university”—a pragmatic set of tools, to be sure, and also, of course, a product. He suggested that the full set of texts might be divided into a set of six courses on such conservative themes as “The History of Civilization” and “Religion and Philosophy,” and yet, writes Kirsch, “in a more profound sense, the lesson taught by the Harvard Classics is ‘Progress’.” “Eliot’s [1910] introduction expresses complete faith in the ‘intermittent and irregular progress from barbarism to civilization’.”

. . .

What may strike modern readers of Eliot’s collection are precisely the “blind spots in Victorian notions of culture and progress” that it represents. For example, those three harbingers of doom for Victorian certitude—Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud—are nowhere to be seen. Omissions like this are quite telling, but, as Kirsch writes, we might not look at Eliot’s achievement as a relic of a naively optimistic age, but rather as “an inspiring testimony to his faith in the possibility of democratic education without the loss of high standards.” This was, and still remains, a noble ideal, if one that—like the utopian dreams of the Victorians—can sometimes seem frustratingly unattainable (or culturally imperialist). But the widespread availability of free online humanities certainly brings us closer than Eliot’s time could ever come.

There's more at the link.

All fifty volumes of the Harvard Classics, plus twenty volumes of The Shelf Of Fiction that accompanied them, are available free of charge as e-books from Bartleby.  I can't recommend this resource too highly.  If you want to give yourself the classical education that most schools failed to provide;  if you have kids or grandkids who are even less well informed about these literary greats;  or if you just plain enjoy good books - you owe it to yourself to click over to Bartleby and download your own copies of these works.



Anonymous said...

The most user-hostile site I have encountered this year!

tweell said...

Blocked by my antivirus - it didn't like that download at all, at all.

I have the 5 foot shelf of books at home, in a small bookcase made for them. I read through them as a teenager, but was unable to get my children to do so.

Dale said...

I tried several times each to download about half a dozen titles. Got ZIP for my efforts. How do you make it work?

Peter said...

@Dale: You can copy-and-paste each section into your word processor, then save the document in your preferred format.

Alternatively, search for the title in question on Gutenberg or another free e-book site that offers direct downloads. They're all available, as far as I know.

Weetabix said...

I bought the hard copy set for a pretty good price from because I still like to hold books. I haven't read them as much as I wish I had, yet.

And Project Gutenberg is wonderful.