Michael J. Kerrigan

 

During his days as Harvard’s influential president, Charles W. Eliot made a frequent assertion: If you were to spend just 15 minutes a day reading the right books, a quantity that could fit on a five foot shelf, you could give yourself a proper liberal education.

As Charles W, Eliot approached retirement as President of Harvard, he argued for “great books” as a democratic means of social mobility. Not everyone could go to Harvard, he told a group of working class men, but everyone could read like “ a Harvard man.”

Editors at Collier, one of the largest publishing houses of the day, were moved by Eliot’s crusading. They made this pitch to Eliot: Assemble you have been referencing and we’ll market it.

The result was the Harvard Classics, a fifty-one-volume anthology of works first published in in 1909 that aspired to offer “the progress of man… from earliest historical times to the close of the nineteenth century.”

In the first twenty years of publication, Collier and Eliot sold an astounding 350,000 sets of the Harvard Classics. It turned out that literate nation had an appetite for great books. Do you think our nation today still has that appetite?

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