Friday, September 07, 2012

The Five Foot Shelf

A series of internet links took me to an article about Dr. Eliot's "five foot shelf" otherwise known as "Harvard Classics." The president of Harvard Charles W. Eliot had said that the books central to a liberal education could be fit on a 5-foot shelf. A publisher took him up on the offer, and in 1909 the "Harvard Classics" series was published - a set of 51 books containing, where possible, whole texts.  It seems appropriate, in this age of compression - via the Kindle - that over a century ago, there was a sense that one didn't need vast space to gain an education. I guess America is home to this kind of self-improvement through books - think Encyclopeadia Brittanica and Readers Digest - but its also quite pervasive. When a family friend passed away a more modern collection - running from fairy stories, to Shakespeare, to even a Graham Greene - ended up in my direction. The list on the "five foot shelf" is heavy on philosophy, poetry, and key science texts such as "Origin of the Species" but it also finds room for fables, political speeches and essays. Fiction is there in "Don Quixote" and others - but a 2nd list - of a shelf of fiction - 20 books long - followed. Its heavy on the Russians, has no room for Melville.

It got me to wondering what would a "twentieth century" five foot shelf contain? We seem less enamoured of non fiction these days - or rather books of science get superceded. Is there one or more poetry anthologies that would suffice or would we have to create a new one? Which novels would survive? Should we find room for much science or language - and what about "art"? What about religion?  So here's the thing - five, ten, fifteen books if you please in the comments that should be there on the "five foot shelf" - or rather on our new "5 Gb Shelf" on our Kindle or iPad. I'll let you go back to 1900, and if there's anything this century that deserves preserving already then put it in there.

Its non fiction I'd find problematic - so few of the key texts have I read - I'd have to find room for some Walter Benjamin, but what about Sartre? Derrida? What about "The Second Sex" and "The Female Eunuch"?

I've made a start with 25 books that would be in contention....

Complete Poems of T.S. Eliot
The first 49 Stories - Ernest Hemingway
The Penguin Book of the Beats
The New Poetry ed. by Alvarez
The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
Howard's End by E.M. Forster
Essays by George Orwell
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Madwoman in the Attic by Gilbert & Gubar
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
Interviews with Francis Bacon by David Sylvestor
Kafka's Diaries
The Essential Writings by Mahatma Gandhi
The Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
The Glass Stories by J.D. Salinger
All my Sons by Arthur Miller
Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
Solibo the Magnificent by Patrick Chamoiseau
Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus
The Origins of the Second World War by A.J.P. Taylor
Enemies of Promise by Cyril Connolly

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