First published in 1909, The Harvard Classics is an anthology consisting of 51 volumes of classic works from world literature. Compiled and edited by Harvard University President, Charles W. Eliot, the goal of the publications was simple: provide a liberal education based on the number of books able to fit across a five-foot shelf (that he felt should be read from for 15 minutes per day). If you are feeling up to the challenge, no shelf space is required anymore. The Harvard Classics are available as a free download from Open Culture to be read on your eReader or tablet.
Eliot’s intention wasn’t to create a compilation of the best literature (though clearly the works chosen are of the highest calibre), but to create a kind of portable university. Reviewing the editor’s introduction to the Harvard Classics, gives true perspective on the significance of the project:
“My purpose in selecting- The Harvard Classics was to provide the literary materials from which a careful and persistent reader might gain a fair view of the progress of man observing , recording, inventing, and imagining from the earliest historical times to the close of the nineteenth century. Within the limits of fifty volumes, containing about 22,000 pages, I was to provide the means of obtaining such a knowledge of ancient and modern literature as seems essential to the twentieth century idea of a cultivated man. The best acquisition of a cultivated man is a liberal frame of mind or way of thinking; but there must be added to that possession acquaintance with the prodigious store of recorded discoveries, experiences, and reflections which humanity in its intermittent and irregular progress from barbarism to civilization has acquired and laid up. From that store I proposed to make such a selection as any intellectually ambitious American family might use to advantage, even if their early opportunities of education had been scanty.”
This purpose is reinforced by reviewing the themes covered by the volumes, including: English poetry, sacred writings, Elizabethan drama, voyages and travels, chronicle and romance, literary and philosophical essays, continental drama, folklore and fable, and many more.
While some modern readers would argue that the collection is no longer complete, Eliot’s primary goal is still achieved by The Harvard Classics serving aptly as a jumping off point for education and discussion; imagine what his joy would be, knowing they can all be held in the palms of our hands.