Tuesday, December 27, 2011


I used to marvel over them as a child.  The richly colored tomes filled a five-foot bookcase in our living room.  Each volume featured mysterious titles etched in gold.  On the second shelf (at my eye-level) was a book titled Two Years Before the Mast Dana.  I remember wondering what the heck did that mean?  I'd run my fingers over my dad's bumpy treasures, thinking that someday I would read them all.  I never did.

In 1909, P. F. Collier & Son first published the Harvard Classics, a 51-volume anthology of works by some of Western civilization’s greatest dead white guys.  Editor Charles W. Eliot (president of Harvard for forty years) was convinced that fifteen minutes of daily reading from this rich source could afford a good substitute for a liberal education.  He believed that “directed reading leading progressively through a subject from its simpler to its more complicated aspects was the best possible training.”  Included was a year’s worth of daily reading suggestions that “will carry you on wings of romance and adventure to other lands, to the scenes of other days and will break the monotony of your days, will change the course of your thinking, will give you the privilege of contact with the great minds whose writings have stimulated and inspired mankind over the centuries.

Two years ago, several months after my mom’s death, my dad heroically boxed up the whole set and mailed them to me as a birthday present. Now they stand proudly in a LL Bean bookcase in my writing room—still unread. 

Marty’s New Year’s Resolutions:
1. To go on a diet.
2. To embark on Charles Eliot’s reading journey.   I think Resolution 2 will be more successful (and fun) than Resolution 1.  (I may periodically update you on my reading—not diet—progress.)

My treasured Harvard Classics.

FIRST WEEK—Why, President Eliot was rather whimsical.  This  looks like fun!

1 Franklin's Advice for the New Year
"Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve"-was one of the rules for success framed by America's first "self-made" man.
Read from Franklin's Autobiography Vol. 1, pp. 79-85. 

2 School-Day Poems of John Milton
At the age of sixteen, Milton first appeared before the public eye as a promising young poet. These early verses, written while he was a boy in school, indicate his brilliant future.
(First edition of Milton's collected poems published Jan. 2, 1645.)
Read: Milton's Poems Vol. 4, pp. 7-18

3 Cicero on Friendship
"Fire and water are not of more universal use than friendship" - such is the high value put upon this great human relationship by the most famous orator of Rome.
(Cicero born Jan. 3, 106 B. C.)
Read from Cicero on Friendship Vol. 9, pp. 16-26

4 A Flounder Fish Story
A fisherman, so the story goes, once caught a flounder that spoke, begging to be released. This was granted, whereupon the fisher­man's wife demanded that it grant her one miracle after another, until even the flounder was disgusted.
(Jacob Grimm, elder of the famous Grimm brothers, born Jan. 4, 1785.)
Read from Grimm's Fairy Tales Vol. 17, pp. 83-90

5 The Soaring Eagle and Contented Stork
Mazzini labored for the freedom of Italy, but was exiled. Byron and Goethe also battled for liberty. Mazzini wrote an essay in which he compared Byron to a soaring eagle and Goethe to a contented stork.
(Byron arrived in Greece to fight for Greek freedom, Jan. 5, 1824.)
Read: Mazzini's Byron and Goethe Vol 32 pp. 377-396.

6 Warned by Hector's Ghost
In the dead of night Hector's ghost appeared to warn Æneas of the impending doom to come upon the walled city of Troy. Æneas lifted his aged father on his back and, taking his son by the hand, sought safety in flight. Off to Latium!
(H. Schliemann, discoverer of ancient Troy, born Jan. 6, 1822.)
Read from Virgil's Aeneid Vol. 13, pp. 109-127

7 If He Yawned, She Lost Her Head!
The Sultan had a habit of beheading each dawn his beautiful bride of the night before, until he encountered Scheherazade. Cleverly she saved her life a thousand and one mornings.
Read from The Thousand and One Nights Vol. 16, pp. 5-13.


  1. OMG, I have the Harvard Classics too - my father bought them used a million years ago. Mine are very old - don't look like yours at all - and I think they might be first printing. So funny because I have read pieces in them over the years and my kids were just yesterday looking at them and talking about reading them as well. Here's to a reading year!!!

  2. Wonderful, Moira! Mine are from the early 1950's and yours are probably much more valuable. But I think we both own some family treasures!