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Reading to Live
Every revolutionary age produces its own kind of nostalgia. It was in , the nadir of this milieu, before the advent of modernism and world war, that The Harvard Classics took shape. Eliot and called at first Dr. In 50 volumes. What does the massive collection preserve? The books appealed to the upwardly mobile and those hungry for knowledge and an education denied them, but the cost would still have been prohibitive to many.
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By the time he set out to read all 51 volumes of the Harvard Classics — known as the Five-Foot Shelf — Beha had already survived blood cancer and seen his identical twin brother nearly die after a car accident. All the big names and important ideas were here: Sophocles, Chaucer, the Constitution, three treatises on smallpox for good measure. Ordinary men and women who had never set foot in Harvard Yard could now stake a claim to the peaks of Western civilization. At 27 he was the picture of aimless youth: a struggling writer, marginally employed and grievously in debt. A wealthy young man shacked up with Plato and Goethe sounds like a gimmick, and a tired one at that. In doing so, he makes an elegant case for literature as an everyday companion no less valuable than the iPod.
T HIS book was prepared and is sent to you with one purpose in view, to enable you to profit in full measure from the writings of the immortals whom you have at your beck and call in the Harvard Classics. This great company of the wisest, the wittiest, the most interesting minds of all ages and every land will afford you entertainment in endless variety, inspiration and stimulation of mind. They will carry you forward upon that road to the high goal toward which all of us are making our way. It is then to the countless hours in which you will walk in step with these great thinkers of all time that this book is dedicated. HOW often does that question come to all of us? Magazines, newspapers, the books of the day—all pall upon us with their deadly monotony of the commonplace. We want something to carry us out of ourselves, to take us a million miles from our humdrum existence, to stimulate our minds to fresh endeavor, to give us a new viewpoint upon our problems, to enable us to get a fresh hold upon ourselves.