From the History Files: A Love of Libraries

The Harvard Classics

“On or about December, 1910,” Virginia Woolf wrote, “human character changed.” Woolf was not referring to a specific event so much as to a new cultural climate, a new way of looking at the world, that would become known as modernism. When he finished his introduction to the Harvard Classics in March of that same year, Charles William Eliot could hardly have guessed that such a change was just over the horizon. Yet it is tempting to think that his “five-foot shelf” of books, chosen as a record of the “progress of man…from the earliest historical times to the close of the nineteenth century,” was meant as a time capsule from that era just about to end.”

“Two editors from Collier, Norman Hapgood and William Patten, had read a speech Eliot delivered to an audience of working men, in which he declared that a five-foot shelf of books could provide ‘a good substitute for a liberal education in youth to anyone who would read them with devotion, even if he could spare but fifteen minutes a day for reading.’ Now they approached Eliot with a proposition: he would pick the titles to fill up that shelf, and Collier would publish them as a series.”

“In his introduction to the series, dated March 10, 1910, Eliot made it clear that the Harvard Classics were intended not as a museum display-case of the “world’s best books,” but as a portable university. While the volumes are numbered in no particular order, he suggested that they could be approached as a set of six courses: “The History of Civilization,” “Religion and Philosophy,” “Education,” “Science,” “Politics,” and “Criticism of Literature and the Fine Arts.” But in a more profound sense, the lesson taught by the Harvard Classics is “Progress”–progress in each of these departments and in the moral quality of the human race as a whole. Eliot’s introduction expresses complete faith in the “intermittent and irregular progress from barbarism to civilization,” “the upward tendency of the human race.”

President Eliot’s “five-foot-shelf” survives, not as a definitive canon, but as an inspiring testimony to his faith in the possibility of democratic education without the loss of high standards. If we scrutinize it today for its shortcomings, we are only paying it the tribute of applying our own standards, the products of a darker and more skeptical age. (Quotes from Eliot’s Elect: The Harvard Classics, 1910, by Adam Kirsch, in Harvard Magazine,

Teddy’s Pig Skin Library by Donna Goff

One day, while browsing my shelves at home, I picked up the personal history of my husband’s maternal grandfather, Edward Mowbray Tuttle, who graduated from Cornell in 1913. He was the assistant Professor of Rural Education, under Alice McCloskey. I got a little carried away, reading with fascination what it was like being one of his students and peering into a picture of Graystone House’s great room. It was a huge hall, lined with bookshelves, clearstory windows, a huge fireplace, a table in the center and lots of chairs. I was transported to another time and place, as I read about the Philosophy Club’s first meeting there. When Grandpa Tuttle left Cornell, he became the Editor-in-Chief of the Bellows-Durham (later Bellows- Reeve) Publishing Company, in Chicago.

Grandpa’s biography was on a shelf below a beautiful collection of books, The Writings of Mankind, by Charles Sylvester, a 20-volume set, copyright 1924, that was published at Bellows-Reeve, while he there. The covers of each volume, are beautifully tooled, edges are gilded. However, it is the content that I find intriguing. The whole title is, “The Writings of Mankind: Selections from the Writings of All Ages, With Extensive Historical Notes, Comment and Criticism, Giving the Customs, Habits, Characters; the Arts, Philosophies and Religions, of those Nations That Have Contributed the Most to Civilization.”

It is certainly not exhaustive, but it is a grand education, in itself. So, I have been considering “The Five Foot Book self” to round things out. I also find the “Teddy Roosevelt’s Pig Skin Library “are of interest, as well. This link has a picture of the book shelf and carrying trunk!

“Theodore Roosevelt had promised himself and his son Kermit a safari in British East Africa once he left the presidency in March 1909. When his sister Corinne Roosevelt Robinson asked this famously omnivorous reader what present she might make him for the trip, “his eyes sparkled like a child who was about to receive a specially nice toy, and he said: ‘I think I should like a pigskin library'” (My Brother Theodore Roosevelt (1921)). He drew up a list (placed by Robinson in Harvard’s Theodore Roosevelt Collection in 1930) and the books went with him, carried, as he described it in African Game Trails, “in a light aluminum and oil-cloth case, which, with its contents, weighed a little less than sixty pounds, making a load for one porter.” The pigskin binding itself was to protect the books from rigors of the hunt and the environment: “Ordinary bindings would either have vanished or become loathsome,” he noted later.”

“The Pigskin Library as it survives today consists of fifty-five volumes representing thirty-nine works by twenty-two of the thirty-seven authors or anonymous classics in the original list, plus other works added during the course of the safari.” “Of the original list, Roosevelt wrote in African Game Trails: “It represents in part Kermit’s taste, in part mine; and, I need hardly say, it also represents in no way all the books we most care for, but merely those which, for one reason or another, we thought we should like to take on this particular trip.” (Quotes from Roosevelt Reading: The Pigskin Library, 1909-1910, Harvard’s Houghton Library,

O.K. I do not know if it is the compact, durable nature of this library, or what. To me, this romantic idea, is far more exciting than curling up to a laptop with classics on it, and does not depend on batteries or electricity. To think, he enjoyed these books, while on safari. I also like Elliot’s idea of a “Portable University.” The props of modern life, swallow up in the mundane, those hours that were once rich and rewarding. Ah, but if we can “spare” fifteen minutes a day, we would no longer settle with nibbling.