Monday, September 17, 2007

A wealth of knowledge, five feet long

OK, I'm kinda late to this party, but it's still cool. Beha has been working his way through all 51 volumes of "Dr. Eliot's five-foot shelf" throughout this year and blogging about it in installments. I just inherited a mostly-complete set of the Classics myself, dust- and mold-covered and begging to be read, if not just stared at admiringly. is going to be helping me plug the gaps at some point.

The Harvard Classics, originally known as Dr. Eliot's Five Foot Shelf, is a fifty-one volume anthology of works by Charles W. Eliot, first published in 1909. Dr. Eliot, then President of Harvard University, had stated in speeches that the elements of a liberal education could be obtained by spending fifteen minutes a day reading from a collection of books that could fit on a five-foot shelf. (Originally he had said a three-foot shelf.) The publisher P. F. Collier and Son saw an opportunity, and challenged him to make good on this statement by selecting an appropriate collection of works; the Harvard Classics was the result. Eliot worked for one year together with William A. Neilson, a professor of English; Eliot determined the works to be included and Neilson selected the specific editions and wrote introductory notes.[1] The last volume contains 60 lectures introducing and summarizing the covered fields: history, poetry, natural science, philosophy, biography, prose fiction, criticism and the essay, education, political science, drama, voyages and travel, and religion.
Beha's most recent installment concerns The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini:
...Cellini was born in Florence in 1500. He began writing his life's story in 1558. In between, he became the most distinguished goldsmith in Renaissance Italy, as well as a leading sculptor. He flourished in an artistic circle that included Michelangelo. He fought in the Sack of Rome. He witnessed the arrival of the plague to Italy. He was patronised by multiple popes and one king of France. He was a rival to several cardinals. He was exiled from both Florence and Rome. He committed at least two murders -- one to avenge the murder of his younger brother -- and was generally quick to solve disputes with his dagger. He was brought up on charges of using one of his models after the Italian fashion (the original Italian is quite clear on the implication that he was a soddomitaccio, but the English translator demures). Another model bore him a daughter, whom he never saw after the first days of her life. Cellini recounts these facts unapologetically: he isn't offering a confession, but a justification.

All of the above has been confirmed by contemporary sources, but there is much in the book that defies credibility and much else that, though possible, has been proven untrue. Which may suggest that Cellini's memoirs -- like James Frey's and David Sedaris's and Augusten Burroughs' -- are really works of fiction. Certainly, the book reads like a novel -- a loose, baggy pre-modern monster of a novel. Its narrator -- who doesn't seem to be quite the same person as its author -- prefigures the scheming anti-heroes in Balzac and Stendhal. This might not be that remarkable, except that Cellini wrote only a few years after the appearance of Pantagruel and Gargantua and almost fifty years before the appearance of Don Quixote.
You can also read the entire Classics collection online here.

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