Saturday, January 17, 2009

Harvard Classics: Week One

I found a complete set of the 1930 Harvard Classics at a library book sale maybe five years ago for $50. It has long been known as the "five foot shelf of books", and I figured, hey, I've got a five foot shelf that could use some books on it. Turns out the fifty volumes are really six feet long!

The origin of the Harvard Classics is kind of interesting. The president of Harvard University stated in a speech that the elements of a liberal education were available to anyone who would read for fifteen minutes a day from the right five-foot shelf of books. A book publisher approached him with a proposal -- if he could name the books, they'd publish them as a set. And they did a really nice job. The books are well-chosen, despite some strong biases, and are well edited, and pleasant to hold and read.

Now, at first, I was all bold, planning to read them from beginning to end. I stalled out in volume one (Benjamin Franklin's autobiography). However, one cool aspect of the Harvard Classics -- it comes with a "devotional"... that is, a suggestion for fifteen minutes (or so) of reading for each day of the year. I tried to do this in 2007, but got distracted and stopped. But 2009 is my year! So, I figured I would report on my daily reading at the end of each week as a way to help keep me honest. If you are interested in reading them, they are actually in the public domain now, so you can download them from several sources. Without further ado, my first week of reading:

Jan 1: Franklin's Autobiography, pp. 79-85. Hearing Ben Franklin talk in the first person is always interesting. In this section he describes his method of monitoring his virtues my making a chart of them on a whiteboard (made of ivory! He uses red ink for permanent lines, and pencil for things that are erasable). Instead of trying to be virtuous in all ways at once, he focuses on one of each of 13 virtues each week, in an attempt to change his habits gradually. This lets him cycle through all 13 virtues four times each year. I'm reading the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People now, and it is interesting to see the connections from that to this.

Jan 2: Milton's Poems, pp. 7-18. These poems are interesting because he wrote them between the ages of 16 and 19. I was fascinated that I could so easily see such a difference between his poetic ability in this short span of age -- they were both amazing, but there was so much more depth and complexity in the college age poems.

Jan 3: On Friendship by Cicero, pp. 16-26. Nice to hear someone analyze friendship, I guess, but though the structure is like Plato, it felt much more long-winded.

Jan 4: Grimm's Fairy Tales, pp. 83-90. This is the well known story of The Fisherman and his Wife, where the wife makes greedier and greedier wishes, finally wishing to be like God. In the past, I had always assumed that the fish was punishing her for overreaching at the end, but reading it again, I wondered if this was a deeper statement about the nature of God:
"Well, what does she want, then?" said the Flounder. "Alas," said he, "she wants to be like unto God." "Go to her, and you will find her back again in the dirty hovel." And there they are living still at this very time.
Jan 5: Byron and Goethe, pp. 377-396. This is an essay by Mazzini about similarities and differences between two great writers. It was gorgeous writing, and though some of it was lost on me, the end passage will stay with me:
Certain travellers of the eleventh century relate that they saw at Teneriffe a prodigiously lofty tree, which, from its immense extent of foliage, collected all the vapors of the atmosphere; to discharge them, when its branches were shaken, in a shower of pure and refreshing water. Genius is like this tree, and the mission of criticism whould be to shake the branches. At the present day it more resembles a savage striving to hew down the noble tree to the roots.
Jan 6: Virgil's Aeneid, pp. 109-127. This was the part with Hector's ghost. The translation was in rhyme, and pretty hard for me to follow. I wonder how I would do with a different translation?

Jan 7: The Thousand and One Nights, pp. 5-13. This is the beginning part, setting up the story of Scheherazade. Part of the fun of the thousand and one nights is all the sex and gore, and this lame bowdlerized version is like drinking a virgin daquiri.

I wonder if I can keep this up for 51 more weeks?

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