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Filling the ultimate bookshelf

The Harvanrd Classics

If you had to provide someone with a full education, just using books that could fit on a five foot stretch of shelf, which books would you choose?

One hundred years ago, Harvard University president Charles W Eliot compiled The Harvard Classics - an anthology of literature with aims to give a "liberal education" to anyone willing to work through the full 50 volumes.

Known as the five foot shelf, it includes works by the likes of Plato, Benjamin Franklin, Milton, Darwin, Dante, Adam Smith, and Shakespeare.

Karl Marx
'The shelf' leaves out Karl Marx - and also has an absence of female authors

The lengthy collection was compiled after a challenge to the retiring professor from publisher Collier.

Two of its employees, Norman Hapgood and William Patten, had read a speech by Eliot in which he claimed a five foot shelf of books could be a "good substitute for a liberal education in youth to anyone who would read them with devotion, even if he could spare but fifteen minutes a day for reading."

The two men asked Eliot to make good on his claim and a year later, with the help of English professor William A. Neilson, the five foot shelf went on sale to the public.

In his introduction, Eliot says the anthology can be seen to educate the reader in six areas - The History of Civilization, Religion and Philosophy, Education, Science, Politics, and Criticism of Literature and the Fine Arts.

By the time of launch, the collection was already of great media interest and soon became a commercial success, with an estimated 350,000 sets sold during the first 20 years of publication.

Good mix?

However, 100 years on, the five foot shelf may seem antiquated in parts, with some important omissions - no female writers were included, and there is no shelf space for renowned thinkers like Karl Marx or Sigmund Freud.

John Mullan, professor of English at University College London, told the Today programme that the lack of any novels limits the collection's appeal to modern readers.

"On the occasions when people have been asked recently to make a list the majority of those books are usually novels and Eliot didn't include any novels on his original list," he says.

"I would want books where it's as much the way they're written than the important subject they're about. Any list that doesn't have Great Expectations and Emma on it is severely lacking.

The Duke of Richmond, played by Eric Porter, kneeling at the body of Richard III, played by Ian Holm
Shakespeare provides some light relief in the Harvard Classics

"I do get the sense that perhaps it was the kind of writing which still in those days might have been thought by some educated people to be a little trivial."

But Christopher Beha - who has read all the books on the list - said that although it may appear daunting, there are some lighter moments.

"There are Grimm's fairytales - although those can be heavy in their way, Hans Christian Andersen's tales, a lot of wonderful drama including Marlowe and Shakespeare. There's a mixture of the pleasurable with the serious.

Mr Beha agreed that a similar project launched today wouldn't have the same impact and authority that Eliot's had, but said the five foot shelf still had something to offer.

"I certainly came away thinking these books are accessible to the common reader. I think that they are still valuable," he says.

What would you include in a modern five foot shelf? What could your favourite books teach the world?

Send us your comments using the form below.


My list would certainly include the following: Darwin, Charles: On the Origin of Species; Russell, Bertrand: History of Western Philosophy; Koestler, Arthur: The Sleepwalkers; Greene, Brian: The Fabric of the Cosmos, just to name a few.
David Love, United Kingdom

My personal (limited!) list would include: 1) Homer, The Odyssey; 2) J. W. Goethe, Travel to Italy; 3) S. Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams; 4) V. Woolf, To the Lighthouse; 5) A. Einstein, Ideas and Opinions.
Cosimo Cannata, Palermo, Italy

My father was one of the buyers. Born in 1928 to a high-school dropout father who was virulently anti-education, he apprenticed as an engineer with Ford. The Harvard Five-Foot Shelf of Books was his most prized possession...

It opened up the world of ideas, philosophy, literature, poetry and religious thought. Eventually he was able to attend night school, and he never really stopped. The books were his legacy to me... Every time I see them it's a reminder of the power of knowledge and the impact self-education had on his life.
Mitzi Waltz, Birmingham, UK

Eliot's list doesn't seem too outdated to me, although the big revolution in how we see the world of the 20th Century - radio, film and television - is surely an important omission - but nonetheless, the foundations of how we think what we think are there in the original, and could probably be enhanced with say, 10-20 more modern 'classics', from Freud to Mein Kampf, and including a couple of screenplays / radio-transmissions (War of the Worlds, for example).
Victoria Cadman, Cambridge

Leaving out fiction, it looks like this (so far): Thomas Paine, 'The Rights of Man'; Rawls, 'A Theory of Justice'; Rousseau, 'The Social Contract'; John Carey, 'The Intellectuals and the Masses'; Engels, 'The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State'; R.Ochse, 'Before the Gates of Excellence'.

Janet Radcliffe Richards, 'The Sceptical Feminist'; Richard Dawkins, 'The God Delusion'; James Gleick, 'Chaos'; Matt Ridley, ' The Red Queen'; Elaine Morgan, 'The Scars of Evolution'; Sylvia Ann Hewlett, 'Babyhunger'; Bryan Burrough and John Helyar, 'Barbarians at the Gate'; Alf Dubs, 'Lobbying'; Victoria Finlay, 'Colour'; Alison Weir, 'Eleanor of Aquitaine'.
Jo Archer, Bath, UK

My classics are books which I read, and then read again because they seem to grow, to change - they seem like flowers growing, fruit ripening: Keri Hulme: The Bone People; Klaus Mann: Mephisto; Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre; Jerome K Jerome: Three men in a boat; E.M Forster: Maurice; Barack Obama: Dreams from my Father; Adrian Mitchel: Poems; Oscar Wilde: The plays; Marilyn French: The Bleeding Heart; Nigel Slater: the Kitchen Diaries
Sieglinde Dlabal, London, England

Stranger In A Strange Land - Heinlein - to make the point that however disparate we are on this planet, we nonetheless share common values of humanity; Stand On Zanzibar - John Brunner - to remind us that while the possibilities of life are infinite the planet is not; Lord Of The Rings - I read it so why shouldn't you have to LOL ;)
Mark Serlin, London UK

The list is far too literary. As a starter to address this please add: The Feynman Lectures in Physics - Richard Feynman; Mathematics for the Millions- Lancelot Hogben; and in the religion section atheism is missing - add The God Delusion - Richard Dawkins.
Geoff Harmer, Reading, UK

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