Reflecting on the Harvard Classics 365 Project

July 08, 2019

It's been over four years since I completed and published The Harvard Classics in a Year: A Liberal Education in 365 Days, and I'm still very proud of what I achieved.

The eBook (and accompanying website) was a labour of love: it took almost two years to gather, compile, edit and annotate this massive tome, which in printed format would equate to over 4000 pages (the size of 10 hefty paperback books). To date, I've sold just over 9,000 copies on the Kindle store, which may not seem like a lot (and I've always been well aware that a book like this would never hit the bestseller list!), though my intention was always to gather the material in a user-friendly format for those who wished to use it. I'd like to think that in that sense, the project has been successful. Lately though, I've been contemplating starting other, less lengthy, projects of a similar nature. More importantly, I've been thinking about how I can improve on my work.

What exactly is The Harvard Classics in a Year? And how is it different from the Five Foot Shelf?

In the early years of the 20th century, the president of Harvard University, Charles Eliot, famously stated that the elements of a liberal education could be obtained by spending 15 minutes a day reading from a collection of books that could fit on a five-foot shelf. Seeing this as a perfect opportunity for literary success, publisher P. F. Collier and Son challenged Eliot to select works of great literature to be included in such a collection, and so in 1909 the first editions of The Harvard Classics were created.

It took around a year from conception to completion of The Harvard Classics. Eliot worked with William A. Neilson, a professor of English to complete the collection, with Eliot choosing the works for inclusion while Neilson selected the specific editions and wrote introductory notes.

Originally, the collection comprised of 50 volumes, with 4-500 pages in each book. Later, a 51st edition was included: Lectures on the Harvard Classics, followed by The Shelf of Fiction in 1917.

Most notable and relevant to The Harvard Classics in a Year was a slim little book titled The Reading Guide in which Eliot specified a text, series of poems or selection from a greater volume for reading each day of the year. This is the title on which The Harvard Classics in a Year is based.

My project comprised of gathering and organising all of the selections Dr. Eliot prescribed for each day of the year into a single, easily accessible volume. This included selections from each of the fifty original volumes, including Eliot's extensive footnotes, and - in many cases - trying to figure out exactly where on the page Eliot presumed his readers to begin. Wherever possible, I also included original illustrations in addition to Eliot's complete introductions from The Readers' Guide.

The intention was to create a single, portable volume for others to easily access the wisdom and literature of The Harvard Classics without the cost (and impracticality) of having the entire five foot shelf of books to hand. I sincerely hope I succeeded in this aim.

Not so great aspects of The Harvard Classics/365 Project

The glaringly obvious flaw of using The Harvard Classics as the basis for a modern liberal education is that the collection is 110 years old. Since it's initial production, we have made huge advances in all subjects on which THC (The Harvard Classics) hoped to educate us, and many, many more classic works have been published.

With this in mind during the production of HC365, I hoped that readers would use the eBook as a platform to inspire further study. At times, I wanted to include my own references to more modern works and internet resources, though it quickly became apparent that to do so would incur a massive further impact on my time. Instead, I resolved to do this with a different, shorter project based on THC (which I hope will be ready to publish in the coming months).

A flaw which to some may be less obvious is the almost complete omission of any works by female authors. Again, with the knowledge that THC is a "product of it's time" we can infer that there were indeed very few published works by women available at the beginning of the 20th century from which Eliot could draw. Back then, women had far fewer rights and those who did publish either did so for their peers or wrote under a pseudonym. But as a woman it irks me. I confess my compulsion to produce something similar to HC365 using works by or about women, but so far I'm struggling to contain my researches to historical works and those published in the public domain...

Having read through the reviews of The Harvard Classics in a Year, I should also refer to constructive criticism of my project, including the lack of an author index and references to the specific translations of non-English works. At the time of publication, I'd not considered these additions. To go back and edit the original document now would require a lot of time and work, though I do admit would add value and ease of use.

What next?

Since publishing HC365, I've worked several different jobs and side projects. Despite my ambitions to continue working on projects based on the five-foot shelf, the demands on my time have prevented me from achieving them.

Recently, I have been able to spend some time focusing on the outlines for a few smaller projects, both for my own educational pleasure and to share with others. I also have a much larger ongoing project, for which the stage of gathering information is likely to take some months before I'm fully ready to write.

To those reading this post who have an interest in The Harvard Classics or similar anthologies, I would sincerely appreciate your comments and suggestions for any future projects or how I could improve on my current works in this field. Please feel free to comment below or contact me directly by email.

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