A hundred years ago this month, a man named Charles Eliot retired after forty years as president of Harvard, ending probably the most significant career in the history of American higher education. In some ways, Eliot’s success was unlikely, though his story certainly began with promise enough. He was born into two of New England’s old families—the Lymans on his mother’s side, the Eliots on his father’s—and he graduated second in his Harvard class, in 1853. He was immediately hired as a tutor there, making him one of only thirteen faculty members at the college. Within a few years, he was elevated to an assistant professorship in chemistry and math.
So far, so good. But when his term came up, Eliot was passed over for a full professorship in favor of Wolcott Gibbs, a scientist with no previous connection to the college. This snub may have been justified: for all his later success as an administrator, Eliot never distinguished himself as a scholar, while Gibbs proved to be one of the great chemists of the age. But Gibbs’s chief advantage at the time was that he wasn’t Harvard educated: while Eliot had received lots of drilling in Latin and Greek, Gibbs had studied chemistry in France and Germany, where he worked in the laboratory and gained practical research experience.
Eliot was invited to stay on at the college in a lesser capacity, but he opted instead to leave for Europe, where he spent the next two years studying the education systems that had given Gibbs such an advantage over him. In Germany and France he saw the research institutions whose specialization allowed for more sophisticated instruction than could be found anywhere in the States. The trip confirmed Eliot’s belief that most of what passed for undergraduate education in America was a total waste of time. Upon his return he published his ideas about education reform in a series of well-regarded essays. These essays so impressed Harvard’s board that they offered Eliot the college’s presidency, just a few years after denying him a professorship. He was thirty-five. He would be seventy-five before he retired.
Astonishing changes occurred at Harvard over the course of Eliot’s four-decade tenure. In 1869, the college had a faculty of forty-five, an undergraduate enrollment of 529 students, and an endowment of roughly $2 million. An entering freshman took a fixed course of Latin, Greek, mathematics, French, elocution, and ethics. Upperclassmen were allowed to choose from a handful of electives, but most of the curriculum comprised requirements for all four years. By 1909, Harvard had 194 faculty members, 2,238 undergraduates, and an endowment of over $20 million. More significantly, students were given nearly total freedom in selecting their course of study, allowing for specialization and dramatically raising the level of upper-class course work. Eliot also oversaw the creation of the graduate program and profound changes in the already existing professional schools. (When he attempted to apply the innovation of written exams to Harvard’s medical school, he was told that most of its students were illiterate.)
Freedom of study had been Eliot’s greatest priority as an educational reformer, and it proved to be his lasting achievement. No longer did all students leave Harvard knowing Homer’s Greek and Cicero’s Latin, but they knew the few subjects they had studied far better than they would have a half-century earlier. In particular, the new model allowed for advanced work in the natural sciences—the kind of work that had not been available to Eliot—which in turn became the foundation for serious graduate study, on the level of what could be found in Germany and France. Along with Johns Hopkins University (whose first president, Daniel Gilman, was one of Eliot’s few peers in influence), Harvard awarded some of the earliest Ph.D.s earned in America. Today, many scholars of American education date the birth of the modern American research university to the beginning of Eliot’s tenure. Since then, Eliot’s reforms have been reformed in turn, but by and large our college curricula look the way they look because of him.
If you have heard of Charles Eliot, it may be in connection with a project only tangentially related to his educational reforms. Throughout his career, Eliot was known to say that the necessary materials for a “liberal education” could fit on a five-foot shelf. As he neared retirement, he was approached by the publishers Collier and Son, who invited him to compile such a shelf. The resulting Harvard Classics—fifty-one volumes that stretch from Homer to Darwin, stopping along the way for Plato and Shakespeare and Adam Smith—first appeared a century ago, in the same month as Eliot’s retirement. “Dr. Eliot’s Five-Foot Shelf,” as it was colloquially known, was the first of several “great books” sets released throughout the twentieth century. It was also a huge success, a major publishing phenomenon. Hundreds of thousands of these sets—millions of individual books—decorate home libraries to this day.
One of them still sits on shelves that once belonged to my grandmother, and its row of deep red spines stands out starkly against the mixed colors of faded dust covers and trade paperbacks there. Throughout my childhood, both before and after my grandmother’s death, I respectfully approached those shelves each time I visited her house. The Harvard Classics—the idea of them as well as their physical presence there—came to fascinate me, in part I suppose for the reason that such projects appeal to so many: they suggest the existence of a fixed canon that might in time be conquered. For this reason and a host of others not immediately relevant, I decided not long ago to read the Classics, in their entirety, over the course of a year, and to write something about the experience, about what it felt like to immerse myself in them.
When I first told people—both friends and publishing professionals—about my plan, I tended to focus on the eccentricity of the project, to play up the difficulty of reading all of “the Classics” in a single year. This seemed like a natural point of emphasis, in part because of a recent explosion of books about intrepid experimentalists who have given over a year of their lives to single-minded and unlikely pursuits—obeying all of the Mosaic laws, say, or following every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking—a genre that I have heard called “stunt books,” but which I came to term, while working on my own contribution to the field, A-Year-of-Riding-the-Unicycle Memoirs.
When I proposed to read the Five-Foot Shelf, I meant to piggyback shamelessly on the success of these AYORTUMers. (There is even a subgenre dedicated to reading multivolume sets like the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Oxford English Dictionary, which offered precedents for my project.) Thus, I framed the book I planned to write in terms of the oddity of my undertaking. But before long I came to understand that my book wasn’t a great candidate for the genre, above all because, qua single-minded and unlikely pursuit, there wasn’t much to it. Even though the year proved difficult in many ways (about which difficulties, more below), there was never any drama as to whether I would read all the books “on time.” Finishing the Shelf in a year meant reading roughly 450 pages a week, which is probably about an average page count for the serious amateur reader. For the professional—book critic, academic, acquiring editor at a publishing house—it’s junior-varsity stuff.
Besides which, the Shelf isn’t a reference set. These weren’t dictionary or encyclopedia pages but pages written to be read in much the way I proposed to read them. This distinction points to the deeper reason that my book would not have made much of an AYORTUMer. As I’ve said, the Classics were meant to represent—really, to contain—a “liberal education,” to make such an education available to the autodidactic everyman. But by the time I started reading them, I had already ostensibly completed my liberal education—when I graduated from college (albeit, not from Harvard) with a degree in English. I’d guess that the typical AYORTUM reader also has a liberal education, if we define such a thing roughly as an undergraduate degree in the humanities. And so the unicycle memoir I had considered would have amounted to a book by and for the liberally educated about the “stunt” of attempting to acquire a liberal education. It’s probably fairly obvious that such a book—more bicycle than unicycle—wouldn’t work very well.
On the plus side, the idea points the way toward another, less stunty kind of book, one that also has a number of precedents, in which the liberally educated author returns to said education in order to remind himself, and his l-e’ed readers, of the value of said l.e. Thus, a film critic from the New Yorker enrolls in Columbia’s humanities track, or a retiring academic heads to St. John’s College to follow its “Great Books” curriculum. The problem here is that, when it came down to it, there was surprisingly little overlap between the actual Harvard Classics and the liberal education that I, for one, received. This is so, in part, because there is no longer such a thing as a liberal education, one that all liberally educated people share in common. And here we might circle back a bit to note that the single greatest reason that such a shared liberal education no longer exists can be located in the person of Charles Eliot.
I didn’t understand this last point until after I started doing research for my book and learned Eliot’s story. Even then, I didn’t pursue the line of thought too far, because I was busy reading through the Shelf. At most, it struck me as a curious irony that Eliot’s name should be remembered by way of the Classics, given his real influence.
But once my reading project was done, it came time to write the book, and I thought more about Eliot’s legacy. The connection between Eliot and the first “great books” set no longer seemed ironic. It seemed quite natural, in fact, provided one understood the meaning of the Classics a bit differently. It’s one thing for a champion of “liberal education” to speak of fitting such a thing within a five-foot shelf; it’s quite another for a founder of the research university to do so. In the latter case, the existence—and the success—of the Classics might be seen not as a blow against specialization, but as its final victory. If a classical education can be fit on a shelf, sold door to door, placed in every home, then Eliot’s modern university can happily dispose of it and get about its proper business. When I think now about the Five-Foot Shelf, I am reminded of the colloquial meaning of “putting something on the shelf.” A “great books” set, while not quite a means of shelving the classics, allows us at least to table them for a while. By comparing my decision to read these books to conquering the entire Encyclopedia Britannica—by suggesting that taking the Classics down from the shelf was an act of eccentricity—I was unwittingly supporting this end. But, this isn’t the spirit in which I read. It didn’t feel, when I did it, like a stunt; it felt like life.
I was left, then, with a book about reading. Of course, there are lots of these, too. David Foster Wallace once noted that characters on television spend almost no time watching TV, despite the fact that most Americans spend an inordinate number of hours doing so.To Wallace, this suggested a particularly vicious feedback loop between watcher and watched. But he also acknowledged that a television show in which people sit around for hours at a time watching television would be less than thrilling. And yet, there are a great many books that are ostensibly about reading. But of course a book about someone sitting on a couch somewhere, slowly turning pages, wouldn’t be especially tantalizing, either. And so writing about the year I spent reading the Classics meant writing, by and large, about what happened when the books went back up on the shelf.
Here we come to the year’s above-mentioned difficulties. Of these there were many—it was the most difficult year of my life, in fact—but all the others paled beside one: a person I love as much as I love anyone in the world got sick, and suffered, and died. This is the one universal experience that has survived the balkanization of education and culture: the people we love most—including ourselves—will all eventually die. Proponents of “liberal education” must reckon with the fact that scientific specialization allows us to live, on balance, longer than we used to, and that the lives we live tend to be more materially comfortable than they once were. But proponents of specialization must admit that the stay of execution that science offers can only ever be temporary, and that, for all the questions that science has answered for us, it can’t tell us what it means that we all must die. It can’t tell us what compensation we might find for the brevity of our lives, or what consolation we might find for the brevity of the lives of others.
The book I wound up writing, then, is in large part about the search for this compensation and consolation. It won’t surprise you to hear that I found these two things—to the extent that I found them at all—in the books that I read that year. Perhaps if I’d been riding the unicycle, or reading the OED, I would have found consolation in these pursuits. But the more I read, the clearer it became that confronting the problem of death—a problem that will never go away—is the reason the classics exist, while such things as unicycles and dictionaries and French cooking exist for very different reasons, however pressing those reasons may be. For this reason, what began as a stunt became a necessity.
“Every reader finds himself,” Proust once wrote about the true nature of great literature. “The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument that makes it possible for the reader to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself.” This seems just right to me. Finally, it’s not that I found consolation in the classics, but that I found consolation in the world by reading the classics. I found consolation in living a life that included these books. And so the book I finally did write wasn’t a book about reading so much as a book about the life of one reader. It was a book about these instruments that made it possible for me to read myself.