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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Anticommon Sense

This is the fiftieth post in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. (Volume L contains the introduction, reader’s guide, and general index, and will therefore be addressed out of order in the final post of the series.) Volume LI: Lectures

Consider a town with a plot of land dedicated to grazing sheep. Every townsperson has free access to the land, and may graze as many sheep as he has. As ideal as this may sound, the town soon runs into a problem; the grass, it turns out, is a finite resource. The townspeople each realize that they individually reap the benefit of grazing their sheep on the public land, while the cost of doing so (in the form of depleted grass) is borne by everybody. This leads to overgrazing, if only because someone will conclude that overgrazing is inevitable, so he might as well beat his neighbors to it. In the end, the common resource that could have been advantageous to everyone is ruined.

This problem is known as the tragedy of the commons, and is familiar to most people. Because people see what the want to see, it has been used to justify policies ranging from privatizing natural resources, to nationalizing them.

One possible “solution” results in another problem: the tragedy of the anticommons. Suppose the townspeople, worried about overgrazing, change the rules for using the commons. Now, any use of the commons requires unanimous approval from the townspeople. They soon find that some people favor changing the commons from sheep pasture to cattle. Others prefer that the land be used for goats. The town vegans form a bloc to oppose all animal husbandry on the commons. Because there are so many stakeholders, it becomes a practical impossibly to negotiate any use for the commons. Rather than the land being overused, it is now underused because no consensus can be reached.

The Gordon Lightfoot song The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is an example of the tragedy of the anticommons. When a television producer approached Lightfoot about using the song in an episode of his show, Lightfoot only agreed on the condition that the producer also get the approval of all of the families of the victims of the shipwreck. The producer quickly realized that the transaction costs associated with tracking down and negotiating with 29 families would be prohibitive. Because too many people had a say in the conditions under which the song would be used, the producer wrote a similar song, and The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald did not get used at all.

Beer of the week: Edmund Fitzgerald Porter – This brew from Great Lakes Brewing Co. is anything but a wreck. The aroma is similar to Guinness, but the flavor and mouthfeel are both more substantial. The beer is a little bitter, a little sweet, and a lot delicious.

Reading of the week: Law and Liberty by Roscoe Pound – The lectures included in the Harvard Classics set are almost entirely by then-contemporary Harvard professors. Roscoe Pound was a professor of jurisprudence at the time, but went on to become dean of Harvard Law. As a prominent educator and as a thinker who deeply engaged with the history and philosophy of the law, Pound would arguably have a case for inclusion if the Harvard Classics were to be updated today. This essay discusses the history of law and personal liberty in a way that may be helpful for understanding the conflicting individual and social interests at stake in the case of the commons.

Question for the week: Would a best solution to the problem of the commons include some sort of payment to those townspeople who do not have sheep and, therefore, do not use the commons? Or would would payments to non-shepherds amount to an undesirable incentive to not raise sheep?


Roland in the Deep

This is the forty-ninth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XLIX: Epic and Saga

If you need help, ask for it. Help is out there. To be sure, there is plenty of value to doing things for oneself. Self-sufficiency is a tremendous virtue. But so much unnecessary struggle and pain comes from people not asking for help when they really should. And it often comes down to pride.

In the epic poem The Song of Roland, the titular hero refuses to ask for help. With the great Saracen army bearing down on his position, Roland’s wise adviser Oliver repeatedly exhorts him to blow his horn and call for reinforcements. Roland, out of a sense of pride, declines time and again. Oliver, in an effort to respond in kind, responds, “I deem of neither reproach nor stain” to ask for help. Of course, that appeal is of no avail.

The worst part of people refusing to ask for help is how often others get hurt because of it. If Roland wants to make a heroic, suicidal last stand, that is well and good. But why should he subject his men to unnecessary danger and hardship? After Oliver fails to convince Roland on a point of pride, he points out the harm to his men. “Were the king but here we were spared this woe… Where standeth our doomed rear-guard the while; They will do their last brave feat this day, No more to mingle in mortal fray.” Predictably, Roland’s response is to call Oliver a coward. All Roland has to do is swallow his pride and blow his horn. To do so would not only improve the odds of victory, but would a probably also reduce the number of casualties. Instead, he insists on satisfying his pride, even at the cost of his men’s lives.

Relatively few people are put in the position of Roland, but everybody needs a little help from time to time. And refusing that help can hurt more than just oneself. So take care of yourself, and ask for help if you need it. For everybody’s sake.

Beer of the week: Krankshaft – “Kölsch” is a protected geographical indicator, meaning that beers brewed more than 50 km from Cologne, Germany may not use that term. (Enough has been said already about protected geographical indicators.) Hence, this brew from Chicago’s Metropolitan Brewing is called “Kölsch Style Beer”. Whatever it is called, it is smooth and malty. It is pale in color with a fluffy head. The yeast imparts a some nice sour notes to this very enjoyable beer.

Reading of the week: The Song of Roland – This excerpt is from the prelude to the battle, and ends just before the fighting begins. You will be glad to know that Roland does eventually blow his horn to summon Charlemagne and his men. However, he does so only after it is too late for the reinforcements to reach him. And, for good measure, he blows the horn so hard that he ruptures his own temples. What an ass!

Question for the week: Is there an important distinction between refusing help when offered and not asking for help? Is one worse?


Impostor Syndrome

This is the forty-eighth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XLVIII: Thoughts, Letters & Minor Works by Blaise Pascal

The Galaxy Song by Monty Python contains the advice: “remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure, how amazingly unlikely is your birth.” Blaise Pascal put the concept slightly differently: “you find yourself in the world at all, only through an infinity of chances. Your birth depends on a marriage, or rather on the marriages of all those from whom you descend. But upon what do these marriages depend? A visit made by chance, an idle word, a thousand unforeseen occasions.”

The point (to Pascal, if not Python) is that we have no particular “right” to anything we have. Although it may be possible to earn things, we already won the existential lottery simply by being born. Consequently, our own merit accounts for relatively little of what we’ve “accomplished.”

As important as that understanding is, it is vital not to be overwhelmed by it. In the face of such a realization, one may be tempted to give up every effort and ambition on the grounds that an infinity of conditions beyond our control may crush us at any time. A more commendable reaction is to try harder to be the best that we can be. As Epictetus recognized, even though we are subject to an infinity of forces beyond our control, what we can control is our reactions to those forces.

Beer of the week: Creeker Double IPA – Through an infinity of chances, I happened to visit the Ithaca Beer Company recently. This IPA from that small brewery is hazy and yellowish, with plenty of head. The aroma is replete with citrus and tropical fruit notes. The flavor follows. And despite the fact that there is relatively little malt flavor, the beer does have a nice, full body. And at 9% alcohol by volume, it packs a punch.

Reading of the week: Discourses on the Condition of the Great by Blaise Pascal – In this essay, Pascal is particularly interested in the chance that makes one man an aristocrat and another man a commoner. Perhaps he should have focused on the when and where of people’s births; everybody who reads this post almost certainly has a higher standard of living than any of the nobility in Pascal’s day.

Question for the week: What is the biggest factor in an individual’s success: station of birth, education (if that can even be distinguished from station of birth), or something else?


Beer as Water

This is the forty-seventh in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XLVII: Elizabethan Drama 2

“Let the wine be plentiful as beer, and beer as water. Hang those penny-pinching fathers that cram wealth in innocent lamb-skins.” Thus Simon Eyre, the mayor of London, opens the feast at the end of Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday. But very few coffers are deep enough to long sustain such a prodigious flow of libations, and the play is somewhat ambiguous on the virtue of thrift.

Earlier in the play, before Eyre was mayor, he promised his workmen a dozen cans of beer. But when he placed the order, he slyly told the errand boy to purchase only two. When the delivery came up ten cans short of the promised dozen, Eyre feigned surprise, but was clearly glad to get twelve cans’ worth of good cheer from his workers for the price of two.

At the beginning of the play, another character relates how his nephew wasted a veritable fortune, reveling his way across Europe:

A verier unthrift lives not in the world,

Than is my cousin; for I’ll tell you what:

’Tis now almost a year since he requested

To travel countries for experience.

I furnished him with coins, bills of exchange,

Letters of credit, men to wait on him,

Solicited my friends in Italy

Well to respect him. But to see the end:

Scant had he journey’d through half Germany,

But all his coin was spent, his men cast off,

His bills embezzl’d, and my jolly coz,

Asham’d to show his bankrupt presence here,

Became a shoemaker in Wittenberg,

Of course, the time spent as a shoemaker ends up serving the young man very well, but one can hardly argue that carousing to the point of bankruptcy is sound policy.

If The Shoemaker’s Holiday has a lesson regarding thrift, it seems to be that one should be willing to spend money for the sake of enjoyment, particularly the enjoyment of others, but not to live beyond one’s means. Lacy was wrong to waste so much of his uncle’s money in Europe, and Eyre was arguably justified in buying his men less than the dozen beers he promised. But once Eyre’s fortune was made, he quite laudably spent a great deal of it on feasting the shoemakers.

So let the beer be as plentiful as water… so long as you can cover the bar tab.

Beer of the week: Broegel Bock Beer – One way to stretch the beer budget is to buy “store-brand” beer. Aldi grocery stores sell a few beers that appear to be “knock-offs” of better known (and slightly more expensive) beers: Kinroo Blue (Blue Moon), Independence Harbor (Sam Adams)Cerveza Monterey (Corona). Based on the label of Broegel Bock, I assumed that this was simply Aldi’s version of Shiner Bock. The packaging is extremely similar. However, I was pleasantly surprised. Broegel is brewed by Brouwerij Martens NV, a prominent white-label brewery in Belgium. The beer is dark amber with a tan head of very large bubbles. The aroma is of bread and caramel. The flavor matches the smell, with sourdough notes to go with the sweet dark malt. This is a much better beer than Shiner Bock.

Reading of the week: The Shoemaker’s Holiday by Thomas Dekker – To be a minute late to this play would mean missing some very important plot points. The opening conversation establishes the forbidden relationship that drives the action of the play.

Question for the week: The balance between quantity and quality is difficult to establish. Is an $18 six-pack really twice as good as a $9 six-pack?


Gods and Devils

This is the forty-sixth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XLVI: Elizabethan Drama 1

Part of the problem of deifying or vilifying political leaders is that each approach dehumanizes its subjects. History’s greatest and most powerful men were, after all, only human. None were gods; none were devils. To think of them as anything but human is misleading and dangerous.

The classic example is Hitler. He was a bad guy, to say the least. But to think of him as evil incarnate or some other non-human abstraction is particularly dangerous because it creates the false impression that such a man could not come to power again. By ignoring Hitler’s humanity, we lower our guard against the next Hitler, and perhaps inadvertently foster the conditions under which such a person may come to be.

For the same reasons, it is dangerous to deify leaders that we like. No matter who your favorite political figure is, that person is, underneath it all, an ordinary person. And like everybody else, that person is subject to passions, temptations, and personal flaws. And when a political hero is a living person, there is the dangerous temptation to grant them unlimited power on the assumption that they can and will wield it with superhuman competency and trustworthiness.

Beer of the week: Smithwicks Red Ale – When the nobles pressured Edward II of England to exile his favorite, Gaveston, he made him Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. This red-brown ale comes from that very island. It has an aroma of toasted malt. The flavor is nicely balanced between that toasted malt and a bit of hops bitterness.

Reading of the week: Edward the Second by Christopher Marlowe – This scene shows Edward II of England as neither saint nor devil. He is misled by ambitious underlings and lets his affection for his favorites interfere with his decision-making. But that does not render him totally incompetent. The rebellion that ultimately leads to his downfall is a back-and-forth affair; at one point Edward captures and executes several of the leading nobles, nearly ending the revolt.

Question for the week: What is the best defense against the worst people coming to power?


Parallelomania

This is the forty-fifth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XLV: Sacred Writings 2

It is the time of the year when we celebrate the birth of a god in human form who would later overcome death. The god-man’s was a virgin birth, foretold by angels and prophets. The birth occurred en route to his earthly parent’s familial home. I refer, of course, to the birth of Siddhartha Gautama, Buddha. Or Jesus Christ. Or both.

Aside from the similarities alluded to above, there is a great deal in common between Christianity and Buddhism. But is that because they share a common source, one religion influenced the other, or mere coincidence?

One of the core beliefs of the Baha’i faith is that all of the world’s major religions, including Christianity and Buddhism, were divinely inspired for their specific places and times. Consequently, the similarities between these religions are no mere coincidence. Each religion is revealed and shares in the universal and essential points. Those issues upon which the religions differ are simply minor details to adapt the one true religion to various times and places.

The Baha’i point of view, of course, has never amounted to a majority, let alone a consensus. Generally, it appears that similarities between Christianity and Buddhism are mere coincidences for the most part, and generally more superficial than they may seem. In fact, the term “parallelomania” was coined specifically to give a name to authors taking such apparent similarities between religions too far.

Still, it is certainly worth considering what leads disparate people to arrive at similar religious tenants. “In their later developments Buddhist and Christian ceremonies show an extraordinary resemblance due in my opinion chiefly to convergence,” wrote Sir Charles Eliot, a British diplomat to the Far East. (Not to be confused with Dr. Charles Eliot, president of Harvard and editor of the Harvard Classics.) “[T]hough I do not entirely exclude mutual influence.”

Perhaps, rather than some direct or indirect interaction between Christians and Buddhists, that “mutual influence” is some deeply embedded aspect of the human psyche. Something about Christmas (and Buddha’s Birthday, and countless other religious beliefs and observances) strikes a chord within us all.

Beer of the week: Chang Classic – Aside from China, Thailand has the largest Buddhist population in the world. This Thai lager has some nice herbal hops in the aroma. It pours a clear, pale gold, with lots of big bubbles that fade fast. The flavor is a bit sweet, dominated by adjunct grain. It could do with a bit more hops, but it is a light and refreshing beer.

Reading of the week: The Birth of Buddha – This story is translated from the Jātaka tales. These stories describe some of Buddha’s many births, in both human and animal form.

Question for the week: Is there some important aspect shared by all religion?