Posted by: N.S. Palmer | June 18, 2016

Harvard Classics: An Education on a Bookshelf


They are little remembered today, but they were a publishing sensation in the early 20th century and sold almost half a million copies.

The Harvard Classics’ 51 volumes include some of the greatest achievements of Western thought and literature up to the end of the 19th century. They cover science, philosophy, literature, poetry, religion, history, economics, medicine, and a range of other topics.

You can still get the complete set of printed books on the web for $300 or so. And now they’re available in e-book format, easy to download and dirt cheap:

The idea for the set came from a speech by Charles Eliot (1834-1926), a chemist who was president of Harvard University from 1869 to 1909. In a public lecture, Dr. Eliot had said that:

”A five-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.”1

Two book editors from the Collier publishing company challenged him to make good on his claim. In response, Dr. Eliot worked with a team of scholars to select the best works and the best translations for a general audience. He then got permission from Harvard to use its name on the set of books. Collier published the set.


In addition to the 51 volumes of the set, the 52nd volume is a “Reading Guide.” It lists a short reading for each day. At the end of the year, readers have learned something about all the subjects of the set. The 51st volume is one of my favorites. It has lectures by leading thinkers of the late 19th century about history, science, philosophy, and other subjects.

It’s also a marvelous reference set. If you combine it with The Great Books of the Western World (published by the Encyclopaedia Britannica) and a few other books, you have at your fingertips most of the greatest achievements of human thought.

My bookshelf has both sets, along with books by Pico della Mirandola, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Boethius, Thomas Aquinas, and a Hebrew Bible. That’s almost everything a person would need to acquire a liberal education, though I have more specialized books (mathematics, economics, and so forth) in other bookcases.

If you’ve got a little money and 15 minutes a day, very few investments can give you a more valuable return.

Works Cited

Eliot, C., editor (1909), The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son.


  1. Eliot, C. (1909), Reading Guide, p. 7. At the time Dr. Eliot wrote, the vast majority of Americans did not go to college and many did not finish high school. 

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