There 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).
“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
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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.