Harvard Classics vs. Great Books of the Western World

Written by on June 26, 2009 in The Great Books - 19 Comments

harvard-vs-great-booksThere are two book collections designed to give the average reader an in-depth liberal education: the Harvard Classics and the Great Books of the Western World.

The volumes in the Great Books (1952) and the Harvard Classics (1909) collections were hand-picked by influential presidents of major universities. During a time when college was strictly for the elite, these collections served as a way to make Western culture and learning available to anyone. Thousands of Americans gave themselves a self-education by working their way through these historic books.

In previous posts, I’ve discussed the benefits of reading great books. Here, I’m going to walk you through the basics of these two major collections and help you decide which is right for you. You can give yourself a classical education without relying on a pre-set reading list. However, when you’re just getting started, it helps to have a bit of guidance.

(Before I get to the good stuff, it’s important to note two issues with these book collections. First, like any book list, these are flawed and will leave out some of the most important works. Second, these were commercial productions published with the intention of generating revenue. Although all of the individual works are now available for free in the public domain, the commercial nature of the collections likely had some influence on book selection).

Harvard Classics

“Before the reading plan represented by the Harvard Classics had taken definite form, I had more than once stated in public that in my opinion a five-foot—at first a three-foot—shelf would hold books enough to afford a good substitute for a liberal education to anyone who would read them with devotion, even if he could spare but fifteen minutes a day for reading.” – Charles Eliot

The 51 volumes for the Harvard Classics collection were selected by Harvard President Charles W. Eliot in 1909. The set is often referred to as the “five foot shelf of books,” a tribute to Eliot’s widely-publicized claim that anyone could gain a liberal education by reading a set of books that take up no more than five feet. The Harvard Classics include a variety of full works from the Western tradition including essays, poems, novels, scientific papers, and more.

Most volumes contain writings from several authors, each with a brief introductory note. A final book offers lectures on the classics based on historic period and genre. Although the Harvard Classics are no longer in print, used collections are easily locatable online and in thrift stores.

Pros: wide variety of Western works, many authors included

Cons: unusual non-chronological organization, no modern works

Great Books of the Western World

“This is more than a set of books, and more than a liberal education. Great Books of the Western World is an act of piety. Here are the sources of our being. Here is our heritage. This is the West. This is its meaning for mankind.” -Robert Hutchins

Forty-three years after the Harvard Classics were introduced, a new collection was born under the guidance of University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins. The Great Books of the Western World originally offered 54 volumes of chronologically-organized classics.

The majority of volumes in the Great Books set include writings from just one author. The works selected are similar in genre to those in the Harvard Classics. Additionally, the Great Books set includes an introductory volume, “The Great Conversation,” and two in-depth indexes tracing ideas between all of the works in the collection.

In 1990, the collection was updated with some edits and the inclusion of six additional books featuring modern writers. The new set is still published by Encyclopedia Britannica; the older collection is regularly sold at a discount on eBay.

Pros: chronological organization, updated content, useful index

Cons: harder to find no-cost versions online, fewer authors in relation to pages

[table id=3 /]

What Will You Read?

Personally, I’ve chosen to work my way through the Great Books of the Western World because I want to see how the pieces build on each other over time (plus, I got a great deal online). I know others who prefer the Harvard Classics because of the variety offered in most volumes.

Which do you prefer? Neither collection is clearly better than the other. But, hopefully, knowing the differences between the Great Books and the Harvard Classics will help you make an informed decision.

19 Comments on "Harvard Classics vs. Great Books of the Western World"

  1. Anon June 27, 2009 at 1:26 pm · Reply

    Both collections are a useful starting point for figuring out what might go into a
    reading list of Western classics. The great books series has the disadvantage of having very small print. Also, for each book in both series there are more authoritative and helpful editions/translations of these books. Unless you must have a shelf of books with
    identical bindings, there is really no need to purchase them as a series. Moreover,
    nearly every public library I’ve ever been to has a complete collection of both.

    For example, my Complete Essays of Montaigne (trans. Donald Frame), is both
    a better translation and more complete than the smattering of Montaigne you get
    in one of these series with acceptably large print.

    I recommend using the list of books in the series as a reference, and borrowing larger print authoritative editions and modern translations of the one you want to read next from the library. Alternatively, if you want to own the book and underline it and write notes in it, you might consider buying a good used copy of some other edition. As a last resort if
    you don’t have access to a library or to books, or prefer for some reason to read books on a computer or ebook reader, you could download them.

    I recommend doing this one book at a time, since it seems less daunting to deal with
    one book at a time, and then you are not in danger of every wasting hundreds of dollars
    on books you have no interest in reading.

  2. Brad June 28, 2009 at 12:01 pm · Reply

    Hi,
    I really enjoy your blog. I noticed you mentioned something about the online availability of the Great Books of the Western World. I want to confirm that a large majority of these books do exist in digital print and are available for free. For those who don’t want to spend the money, here is a list of websites that I used in compiling my very own digital collection that contains the same works as the Great Books: books.google.com, ulib.org, http://oll.libertyfund.org, http://www.archive.org, gutenberg.org.
    From these sites, I managed to find all but the most obscure pieces contained in the entire sixty-four volume collection. If anyone would rather not search for the books on these sites, I might just decide to distribute my digital collection through the usual means…Just let me know.

  3. Eric T. MacKnight June 28, 2009 at 11:14 pm · Reply

    Readers should also know about the first two volumes of the Great Books of the Western World, Mortimer Adler’s ‘Syntopicon’—a magnificent research tool that, if read in its entirety, could substitute for a university education and one or two graduate degrees.

  4. Jamie June 29, 2009 at 11:33 am · Reply

    Anon, good point about the print in the Great Books series. I like the double columns, but it is a bit difficult on the eyes. You’re right about there being better editions out there. One problem: if someone is just getting started with the classics, they’re not going to know where to look much less which editions to choose. I suppose it is possible to figure that out by reading reviews on Amazon and other sites.

    Brad, I’m sure a lot of people would be interested in knowing where to find these books online. They’re definitely available, but you have do have to search (unlike the Harvard Classics, which are all on a single list from Bartleby). There may be some copyright issues with including selections organized in the exact same way, as the series is considered an anthology. If you decide to look into that, please post back.

    Eric, I love the Synopicon. I referred to them as “indexes” above so as not to generate confusion, but they’re really a different thing altogether. Some public libraries are now providing no-cost access to the online version of the Great Books. Britannica has added thousands of links into the Synopicon, so all you have to do is click on a reference listed and you’ll be directed to the text. Amazing.

  5. Marc July 1, 2009 at 1:12 am · Reply

    Dear Blogger,

    you are nominated for the “Top 100 Language Blogs 2009″ competition. Congratulations! After last year’s success the bab.la language portal and Lexiophiles language blog are hosting this year’s worldwide language blog competition once again. We are confident to surpass more than the 350 blogs which entered the competition in 2008.

    We have made two major changes to last year:

    1. Due to the amount of blogs we have created categories.
    (Language Learning/Language Teaching/Language Technology/
    Language Professionals)
    You are in category Language Technology
    2. User voting will count 50% towards final score

    Voting will start on July 8, leaving you enough time to prepare your readers for the upcoming voting. Voting will close on July 27 and the winners will be announced on July 30.

    For more information on the 2009 competition and what it is all about visit [http://www.lexiophiles.com/english/top-100-language-blogs-2009-nomination-started]
    So now you may ask yourself what you can do. Here are some suggestions

    -Nominations are open until July 6, so feel free to share any blog you like with us
    -Each blog will have a one-sentence-description for the voting. If you would like a special description to go along with your blog, just send me an email [marc@bab.la]

    Kind regards,
    Marc
    On behalf of the bab.la and Lexiophiles team
    [http://bab.la]
    [www.lexiophiles.com]

    Marc Lütten

    bab.la GmbH | Baumwall 7 | 20459 Hamburg | Germany
    Phone: +49(0)40-707080950 http://bab.la/
    Handelsregister AG Hamburg | HRB 101207
    Geschaftsführer: Dr. Andreas Schroeter, Dr. Thomas Schroeter, Patrick Uecker

  6. Karen Gurney July 1, 2009 at 11:00 am · Reply

    My parents purchased the Harvard Classics set for us when I was young. They encouraged us to read and set the example by having a family reading time, duirng which we all gathered in one room with our reading picks. In addition, they woud talk to us about what we had read and valued our opinions.

    While I am the only one of my siblings to obtain a colelge degree, we are all familiar with Plato, Socrates and much more. This was the best investment my parents ever made and the set has since been handed down in the family.

  7. Jamie July 1, 2009 at 12:31 pm · Reply

    Karen, that really does sound like a smart investment. I wish that all parents chose to leave their kids such a rich legacy by reading the classics.

    Were you ever bored / frustrated by reading higher-level works growing up? Or did it seem normal because everyone in your family was doing it?

  8. Mariposa July 22, 2009 at 10:44 pm · Reply

    About a week ago I discovered your blog while comparing these two sets of classics. You have an amazing collection of resources. I’ve enjoyed reading your opinions and your latest interview. Thank you.

  9. Jem October 15, 2009 at 10:03 am · Reply

    Jamie, I just discovered your blog, and it looks like you’ve got some great information here. Thank you for sharing.

    I’m a 23-year-old who’s looking at going back to grad school, and even though I was an English major, I feel like there’s so many great classic works that I missed in school (I read Moby Dick and Don Quixote last year for the first time and I am currently reading The Illiad). So I feel like I’ve been trying my best to catch-up with these works and was excited to hear about the Great Books Series, because it provided a “checklist” of these classic works. I was looking online, decided to gather as much information about the series before purchasing it, when I discovered your blog.

    I’ve got three brief questions for you: one, I looked for online text for the Syntopicon and was having trouble finding anything. I know you mentioned a couple of links in your blog response above and was wondering if you could offer me any more advice on how to view both volumes.

    Secondly, I found a list online for a 10 year reading program for the 54 volume Great Series set. Do you know if there is a reading plan for the 60 volume set?

    Lastly, are there any other great resources or lists that you would recommend, as well as other websites that could provide helpful background information on the authors.

    Thanks for the advice. I’ll check out more information on the Harvard Classics series, and I hope to read more of your blog articles soon!

  10. wgintheoc December 13, 2009 at 6:08 pm · Reply

    Jamie,

    You can’t go wrong by reading either collection. But, you can, if you don’t know what your talking about. Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth & The Tempest, by Shakespeare appear in Vol. 46 of the Harvard Classics.

  11. Angela Shults January 23, 2010 at 4:26 pm · Reply

    I have the complete 51-book set of the Harvard CLassics (limited library edition). I am trying currently to sell them, but can’t bring myself to put them on an auction site. If you are interested in buying the complete set for $650, please email me at angela.shults@yahoo.com.

  12. Pat Duggan January 26, 2010 at 1:00 pm · Reply

    Hi,

    I had a brief browse through this site (after a search for resources on Illich) and I think what you are doing/advocating is admirable. However, I wonder if you see any contradiction in pursuing an education such as that provided by the ‘great books’. Is this type of education still not organised around high-centres (Harvard, etc) and imbued with the same kind of authoritarianism. I understand an interest in canonical texts (because let’s face it, SOME of them deserve to be there) but by sifting through 60 or so volumes of handpicked texts by an educated elite, do you not play back into the same value system? Do you believe the ‘great books’ (and I am aware of the overwhelming irony of my quoting this during this argument) to be ‘the best that has been thought and said’, as Matthew Arnold put it? Im just wondering – I dont intend this to be construed as particularly critical. And why are the ‘classics’ ‘higher-level’ works??

  13. Bobby Sutton February 20, 2010 at 7:31 pm · Reply

    I found your website this evening and I am happy that I did.
    I do want to point out something that you mentioned in the
    4th paragraph above (June 26, 2009)

    You said that the Bible and Shakespeare were excluded from
    the Harvard Classics. I found that vols. 44 and 45 have parts
    of the Bible and that vol. 46 has 4 plays by Shakespeare.

  14. Patrick March 10, 2010 at 11:45 am · Reply

    Pat Duggan,

    Many of the same titles are included in the two sets. And, where the titles differ, the chosen texts convey the same ideas. There is a reason for that. There isn’t really much opportunity for “the educated elite” to impose their “authoritarianism.”

    Books become classics and are chosen for sets like these, because those same books have survived the test of time and have been most influential on civilization and history. Neither, the “the educated elite,” nor we, can change the influential nature and popularity of these works.

    The people who edited these sets were just what the verb “edited” implies — they were editors. They made choices such as “which author best represents the philosophy of Stoicism in a set of 50 volumes” or “which public domain translation is appropriate.”

  15. Bryan April 27, 2010 at 7:13 am · Reply

    1) There are several Shakespearean works and Bible books included in the Harvard Classics.

    2) The Harvard Classics ARE still in print and a simple google search should illustrate this. Here is one link: http://www.eastonpressbooks.com/leather/product.asp?code=0286

    3) 1952 is not ‘The first half of the twentieth century’.

    4) It’s a good idea to know what you’re talking about before writing on the subject.

  16. Anon of Ibid June 5, 2010 at 11:42 am · Reply

    Hey there. My local libaray has the “Great Books” collection, every title except the “Great Conversation”, which I was very interested in reading. Can you tell me a little bit more about what exactly is _in_ the Great Conversation book. It will motivate me to seek this book out by other means.

    Thanks!

  17. Michael Corayer November 21, 2010 at 11:35 am · Reply

    I’ve been a fan of your blog for awhile. I think it’s great that you’re promoting self-education and I agree that investing one’s time in either set will be a worthwhile endeavor. I’m currently working my way through the Harvard Classics, writing a blog with my thoughts and some selected quotes from each volume. I began a few weeks ago, and am now beginning Volume 4. So far I don’t mind the non-chronological order, and it can be refreshing to jump ahead or back in time between selections and see how ideas have changed or remained the same.

  18. JimII December 27, 2010 at 8:06 pm · Reply

    I have just put created a tool to help those interested in the Great Books Ten Year Reading Plan that is specific to the 1990 edition.

    http://propheticprogress.blogspot.com/p/ten-year-reading-list-for-great-books.html

  19. JimII February 17, 2011 at 10:48 pm · Reply

    After you grab the reading list, feel free to pop back in a leave a comment if we are reading the same stuff.

Leave a Comment