Harvard Classics Review

This is the fifty-first and final in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume L: Introduction, Readers Guide, Indexes

Thus ends my year-long series on the Harvard Classics. Fifty-one volumes of the greatest books ever written (and as many different beers.) I conclude with a few observations, in no particular order:

Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. was the biggest surprise of the whole set. I was totally unfamiliar with the book until this project, but so much did I enjoy it, that it is the only volume that I read cover-to-cover. (To be honest, I didn’t make it quite to the back cover. I did not read all of Twenty Four Years Later, the much-delayed epilogue in which Dana returns to California as a celebrity a quarter of a century after his first voyage.) In the book, Dana provides lively and descriptive account of life on a merchant ship and on the old California coast. Of particular note, one need not understand all of the parts and rigging of a ship to thoroughly enjoy his description of his duties as a sailor.

The general index is an excellent tool. In an age with Ctrl+F text searching, the idea that somebody took the time to read through the entire set and cross-reference words and concepts is truly remarkable. It is a humbling reminder of how easy we have it, and a tribute to those who did the hard work that we now take for granted.

As far as I can tell, the famous 15-minutes-a-day reading plan was not added to the set until 1930. I am not sure about that date, but I am sure that my second edition set does not include it. In the past, the daily program has proved very helpful to me. It is a surefire way to find a readable, thought-provoking passage.

I have commented more than once that the set includes a surprising amount of biographical works. I have always been a fan of biography, so I do not consider this a great flaw. However, I do think that the bulk of the biographical works could comfortably be replaced with more “pure” philosophy or something else.

Speaking of replacements, I cannot help but think that several works included in the Harvard Classics would not make the cut if the series were reimagined today. Dana, Manzoni, and Cellini spring to mind. Milton and Darwin would probably be reduced by at least one volume. Volume XV: Bunyan and Walton would almost certainly be excised entirely.

What would be selected to replace these works would depend very much upon the new editor. For mine, I’d add Homer’s Iliad (which I regard as a shocking omission in the first place.) I would exchange one volume of English poetry for one volume of American. I would also probably include some Marx to go along with Smith. Nietzsche is another obvious choice for inclusion. Of course, there are myriad combinations of works that could make up such a set. General agreement on each inclusion is far too much to ask.

Much less controversial than adding or removing works would be reorganizing the whole set. As it is, I can not make any sense of the organizing principle. It is not chronological and does not appear to have any subject-matter order. The poetry of Milton and Burns are near the beginning, while the volumes of English poetry are near the end. Similarly, Greek drama is at the beginning, continental and modern English drama are in the middle, and Elizabethan drama is near the end. I’d favor a roughly chronological arrangement, but subject-matter organization could also work.

In a general way, there is very little fiction in the series. As Dr. Eliot explains in his Editor’s Introduction, “the whole of nineteenth century fiction, with two exceptions, was excluded; partly because of its great bulk, and partly because it is easily accessible.” As a set, there is no particular point in including a novel by Tolstoy or Austen; copies of War and Peace and Pride and Prejudice are not at all hard to come by. Besides, at between 400 and 450 pages, the volumes of the Harvard Classics would not accommodate War and Peace without abridgment. However, I think that one volume of the set could have been reserved for Russian short stories and one volume reserved for American.

During the course of the year, I exchanged comments on another blog that compared the Harvard Classics and the Britannica Great Books of the Western World.  I observed that the blogger omitted any discussion of the books as physical objects. It is my opinion that the Harvard Classics are a better set in physical terms. They are more compact, printed on better paper, and are better formatted. The Britannica set, to nobody’s surprise, is published like an encyclopedia. Consequently, that set is better suited for use as a reference than for ordinary reading. The books are larger and less wieldy. The paper is the thin sort used in bibles and encyclopedias (saving on bulk at the expense of durability and feel.) For the same reason, the pages are laid out in columns. The other blogger’s response to my comment expressed the opinion that the columns make reading easier, but that is obviously incorrect. Columns are employed to save space. That is why they are the preferred format of textbooks, newspapers, and dictionaries, where space is at a premium. Go to the library and pick up any novel you like; it is with good reason that you will not find the pages divided into columns. The Harvard Classics, although not especially high quality books, are an excellent size and format, especially when compared to their younger cousin, the GBWW.

For the purposes of this blog, the set has been quite well suited. It has been much easier to do a regular weekly post with the Harvard Classics providing me with a fixed volume for each week. (To say nothing of the fact that the entire set is now in the public domain, so there is no additional concern on that account.) I do not think that this blog has ever been so consistent. Over the past year, I have published a new post every week without fail.

I fear that such consistency cannot be expected in the future. For one thing, it is a lot more work to pick a reading each week when I cannot simply flip through the next volume of a set. For another, I am drinking less beer than I have in the past. At times I have had a backlog of a dozen beer reviews; I am currently at three. But most importantly, a number of life-changing events happened over the course of this last year spent with the Harvard Classics. Suffice it to say that in the coming year I will spend more time pushing a stroller and doing legal research, and less time blogging.

In the next year, and perhaps the next several years, I think it unlikely that I shall return very often to the Harvard Classics. I am very glad that I took the time to read from each volume, and I still think that they look very well on my bookshelf, but they are generally more for show than anything else at this point. Even if I really want to read any work included in the set, there are reasons that I would not reach for my Harvard Classics. For one thing, I would seek out the best translation of any work not originally in English. The Harvard Classics translations are, naturally, old, public domain translations. Consequently, it is likely that a better translation is available to anybody with a library card or an Amazon account.

All in all, I think that Dr. Eliot may be well satisfied with his project. I now that I am.

Beer of the week: All Day IPA – A book series for all time is quite naturally paired with a beer for all day. Founders brews this lovely session IPA. At 4.7% alcohol by volume (compared to the 7.2% of their Centennial IPA), one could easily go through a few of these. It is dark gold with a nice foamy head. It has hints of pineapple in the hop-forward aroma. The flavor has plenty of hops bitterness without being a palate destroyer, and enough malt to round it all out. A very solid choice.

Reading of the week: The Editor’s Introduction to the Harvard Classics by Charles William Eliot – “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.” Thus, Dr. Eliot expresses the essence of his project. This excerpt includes a few ideas on how best to approach the set. (The fact that this “introduction” appears in the fiftieth volume, rather than the first, is a quibble that we must leave for another time.)

Question for the week: What works would you add to the Harvard Classics if you were its modern editor? And what would you cut to make way for your additions?

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Drinking and Thinking

This is the eighteenth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XVIII: Modern English Drama

For as long as humans have consumed alcohol, its effect on thought, particularly creative thought, has been an important issue.

According to Herodotus, in Book I of his Histories, the Persians made alcohol an essential part of their decision-making. “Moreover,” he writes, “it is their custom to deliberate about the gravest matters when they are drunk; and what they approve in their deliberations is proposed to them the next day, when they are sober, by the master of the house where they deliberate; and if, being sober, they still approve it, they act on it, but if not, they drop it. And if they have deliberated about a matter when sober, they decide upon it when they are drunk.” There are several important features of this comment. In the first place, the Persians applied this practice for “the gravest matters”; the most important decisions require the most complete deliberation. Additionally, the order does not seem to matter; the initial deliberation can be either drunk or sober, so long as the decisions are reviewed in the opposite state. The ultimate decision making is not left exclusively to sobriety.

Two thousand years later, the notion of alcohol as an aide to thought was still common. In Oliver Goldsmith’s 1773 comedy She Stoops To Conquer, the jokester Tony Lumpkin sings a drinking song that starts with the lines:

Let schoolmasters puzzle their brain
With grammar, and nonsense, and learning,
Good liquor, I stoutly maintain,
Gives genus a better discerning.

More important than intellectual training, Lumpkin declares, is the consumption of good liquor. Of course, it is not at all clear that this song should be taken at face value. The song meets with the universal approval of the barflies… a group whose decision making is, itself, questionable.

Shortly before our own day, we have come to better appreciate how alcohol adversely affects our mental processes. H. L. Mencken, although an avid tippler, never mixed alcohol and intellectual work. In his essay Giants at the Bar, he wrote,I never touch the stuff by daylight if I can help it, and I employ it of an evening not to hooch up my faculties but to let them down after work. Not in years have I ever written anything with so much as a glass of beer in my system. My compositions, I gather, sometimes seem boozy to the nobility and gentry, but they are actually done as soberly as those of the late William Dean Howells.”

Ultimately, it seems that different amounts of alcohol (from zero to tipsy) provide different mental effects. So for each individual, each mental task probably has its own optimal level of intoxication. (Many, if not most, of which are almost certainly stone sober.) I suppose that it would require years of dedicated study to determine how many beers are ideal for any given task. I’d better get to work.

Beer of the week: PC Pils – Founders Brewing Co. makes this “American hopped pilsner.” But PC Pils doesn’t strike me as very pilsner-like. For one thing, it is a bit hazy, while pilsners are most often clear and golden. And without the classic noble hops aroma and taste, it just doesn’t fit the bill. That said, I quite like PC Pils. Although the aroma is faint, it is nice and hoppy. The flavor is primarily of floral hops and a subtle hint of ginger. Whatever style they claim this is, Founders has done a great job with this summer seasonal.

Reading of the week: She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith – This scene sets up the primary story arc of the play. After performing the song introduced above, Lumpkin misleads some travelers into mistaking their destination. A series of misunderstandings ensues. More alcohol may have helped.

Question for the week: Is there any task, mental or otherwise, that you are better at after a beer or two?