Books as Self-Education

I have always believed in the ability of books to be among our best teachers. Many of the fundamental principles that have guided my intellectual development were obtained not from family, not from school, but from the pages of a favorite book. I certainly do not want to diminish other forms of education at all, as they are certainly useful in many ways; I do, though, want to discuss the power of books as tools for the autodidact (i.e., ‘self-teacher’), with special reference to The Harvard Classics as a prime example of this power.

First of all, the use of books as self-teaching tools implicitly involves literacy, which has been demonstrated to be an indispensable skill in the development of the individual, and in successful interaction with other members of the community. It is no coincidence that ‘community’ and ‘communicate’ have the same root; language is what connects us, and allows us to discuss ideas with one another.

Verbal communication is acquired first, because it is used most frequently, generally for simple or current concerns (e.g., ‘please pass the butter’; ‘Help, I hurt my ankle’; etc.). Written communication comes later, and – at least traditionally – is more formalized, allowing communication about more complex topics (e.g., the nature of the human soul), and also about communication itself (e.g., dictionaries; philosophical essays). Where verbal communication focuses on immediacy, writing – again, traditionally – concentrates on exactitude.

In today’s world, it is easy to identify those who read regularly, because their style of verbal communication tends to sound similar to written communication. It is also easy to spot those who do not read at all, because their writing very much resembles speech. A more recent phenomenon is the resemblance of speech to the telegraphic style of text messages, which is a distressing trend, but one I will not elaborate on here.

Back to reading as education. What makes reading particularly suited to imparting knowledge to the reader, and how is it more effective than, for instance, just talking with others? I have my own theory, which relates to the distinction drawn earlier: written communication, by its very nature and construction, is designed to teach concepts (as distinct from verbal communication, which seems best suited to furthering awareness of immediate surroundings or situation – e.g. “Watch out for that car!”).

I believe there are several reasons for this. First, our minds are placed in a specific context when reading. The world is shut out, and I commit myself fully to interacting with the text. My mind tells itself, “It is time to focus on doing this one thing,” and as a result is ready to receive information in a complex form. Second, the very fact that the text itself was printed in the first place- again, traditionally – implies several things: that the writer considered the message worth spreading; that the writer, knowing he/she intended to transmit ideas to many other people, was invested of a certain level of responsibility related to what was said, and how it was said. In other words, if we went to the trouble of putting pen to paper, the ideas are worth considering. Third, the very form of the information itself causes us to use a part of our brain that is functioning at a more conceptual level. This ties in with the context mentioned earlier. My mind understands the difference between thinking about the idea of freedom, and seeing an example of freedom. In the same way, it is in a different mode when it ponders what it means to be free, than when it makes my mouth say, “I’m free!”.

Now, up to this point, this has all been very technical and theoretical. Time for a concrete example, I think:

In the early twentieth century Charles W. Eliot, the Dean of Harvard University, claimed that a decent education could be had by reading for fifteen minutes a day from a five foot shelf of books. In other words, we can teach ourselves most of the concepts we need simply by reading books. P.F. Collier, a prominent publisher at the time, seized on this idea, and requested from Eliot a list of works that he would place on this bookshelf, and upon receiving it published a uniformly bound set of these works, known as The Harvard Classics. Ever since, it has been recognized as a monument to the world’s great works of literature and history, and has been eagerly collected since it was first published in 1909.

The first set included 50 volumes. Subsequent reprints have included the original material along with supplementary volumes, so some sets have as many as 54 volumes. Material ranges from poetry to politics, memoirs to monographs, science to fable, all carefully chosen to provide a well-rounded collection. Below is a complete list of the works included. It is likely you will recognize many of them, while others will seem foreign. While Eliot likely did not envision that his selections would be used to teach us something about the state of academic and intellectual life in 1909, they do this too, by showing us what thoughts survive the onslaught of time, the changes in ideals, and the inevitable march of progress.

And this brings me to perhaps one of the most important distinctions I will make about reading, which is that every written work implicitly includes its own historical context. Every piece of literature, every historical treatise, every philosophical theory, is firmly placed in a very specific slot within the larger chronology of the printed word. Its production was informed by this placement, the nature of its production relates to this placement, and the content of it speaks always from this placement. Unlike any verbal utterance, printed works occupy a place in history. They are historical objects. Even verbal statements recorded for posterity maintain their authority because they were immortalized in ink.

The ability of books to teach may draw some of its power from this phenomenon. Those who understand the historical implications of the simple existence of a particular book are immediately struck with a sense of wonder when in its presence. To think that we are, effectively, drinking history into ourselves with our eyes and our minds when we read, inspires awe, and keeps us coming back for more. Those who truly commit themselves to exploring the vast world that books offer will find that the sea of information is unending, that there will always be more to learn, and that reading floats us from one ocean to the next.

The Harvard Classics, in Fifty Volumes


Vol. 1: FRANKLIN, WOOLMAN, PENN: His Autobiography, by Benjamin Franklin; Journal, by John Woolman; Fruits of Solitude, by William Penn

Vol. 2. PLATO, EPICTETUS, MARCUS AURELIUS: The Apology, Phaedo and Crito, by Plato; The Golden Sayings, by Epictetus; The Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius

Vol. 3. BACON, MILTON’S PROSE, THOS. BROWNE: Essays, Civil and Moral & The New Atlantis, by Francis Bacon; Areopagitica & Tractate of Education, by John Milton; Religio Medici, by Sir Thomas Browne

Vol. 4. COMPLETE POEMS IN ENGLISH, MILTON: Complete Poems Written in English, by John Milton

Vol. 5. ESSAYS AND ENGLISH TRAITS, EMERSON: Essays and English Traits, by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Vol. 6. POEMS AND SONGS, BURNS: Poems and Songs, by Robert Burns

Vol. 7. CONFESSIONS OF ST. AUGUSTINE, IMITATIONS OF CHRIST: The Confessions of St. Augustine; The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis

Vol. 8. NINE GREEK DRAMAS: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Furies & Prometheus Bound, by Aeschylus; Oedipus the King & Antigone, by Sophocles; Hippolytus, The Bacchae, by Euripides; The Frogs, by Aristophanes

Vol. 9. LETTERS AND TREATISES OF CICERO AND PLINY: On Friendship, On Old Age & Letters, by Cicero; Letters, by Pliny the Younger

Vol. 10. WEALTH OF NATIONS, ADAM SMITH: Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith

Vol. 11. ORIGIN OF SPECIES, DARWIN: The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin

Vol. 12. PLUTARCH’S LIVES: Lives, by Plutarch

Vol. 13. AENEID, VIRGIL: Aeneid, by Virgil

Vol. 14. DON QUIXOTE, Part 1, CERVANTES: Don Quixote, Part 1, by Cervantes

Vol. 15. PILGRIM’S PROGRESS, DONNE & HERBERT, BUNYAN, WALTON: The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan; The Lives of Donne and Herbert, by Izaak Walton

Vol. 16. THE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS: Stories from the Thousand and One Nights

Vol. 17. FOLKLORE AND FABLE, AESOP, GRIMM, ANDERSON: Fables, by Aesop; Household Tales, by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm; Tales, by Hans Christian Andersen

Vol. 18. MODERN ENGLISH DRAMA: All for Love, by John Dryden; The School for Scandal, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan; She Stoops to Conquer, by Oliver Goldsmith; The Cenci, by Percy Bysshe Shelley; A Blot in the ‘Scutcheon, by Robert Browning; Manfred, by Lord Byron

Vol. 19. FAUST, EGMONT, ETC. DOCTOR FAUSTUS, GOETHE, MARLOWE: Faust, Part I, Egmont & Hermann and Dorothea, by J.W. von Goethe; Dr. Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe

Vol. 20. THE DIVINE COMEDY, DANTE: The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri

Vol. 21. I PROMESSI SPOSI: I Promessi Sposi, by Alessandro Manzoni

Vol. 22. THE ODYSSEY, HOMER: The Odyssey of Homer

Vol. 23. TWO YEARS BEFORE THE MAST, DANA: Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

Vol. 24. ON THE SUBLIME, FRENCH REVOLUTION, ETC., BURKE: On Taste, On the Sublime and Beautiful, Reflections on the French Revolution & A Letter to a Noble Lord, by Edmund Burke

Vol. 25. AUTOBIOGRAPHY, ETC., ESSAYS AND ADDRESSES, J.S. MILL, T. CARLYLE: Autobiography & On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill; Characteristics, Inaugural Address at Edinburgh & Sir Walter Scott, by Thomas Carlyle

Vol. 26. CONTINENTAL DRAMA: Life Is a Dream, by Pedro Calderon de la Barca; Polyeucte, by Pierre Corneille; Phèdre, by Jean Racine; Tartuffe, by Molière; Minna von Barnhelm, by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing; Wilhelm Tell, by Friedrich von Schiller



Vol. 29. VOYAGE OF THE BEAGLE, DARWIN: The Voyage of the Beagle, by Charles Darwin

Vol. 30. FARADAY, HELMHOLTZ, KELVIN, NEWCOMB, ETC; Scientific Papers: Physics, Chemistry, Astronomy, Geology

Vol. 31. AUTOBIOGRAPHY, BENVENUTO CELLINI: The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini

Vol. 32. LITERARY AND PHILOSOPHICAL ESSAYS: Montaigne, Sainte-beuve, Renan, etc.

Vol. 33. VOYAGES AND TRAVELS: Voyages and Travels: Ancient and Modern

Vol. 34. FRENCH AND ENGLISH PHILOSOPHERS, DESCARTES, VOLTAIRE, ROUSSEAU, HOBBES: Discourse on Method, by Rene Descartes; Letters on the English, by Voltaire; On the Inequality among Mankind & Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar, by Jean Jacques Rousseau; Of Man, Being the First Part of Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes

Vol. 35. CHRONICLE AND ROMANCE, FROISSART, MALORY, HOLINSHEAD: Chronicles, by Jean Froissart; The Holy Grail, by Sir Thomas Malory; A Description of Elizabethan England, by William Harrison

Vol. 36. MACHIAVELLI, MORE, LUTHER: The Prince, by Niccolò Machiavelli; The Life of Sir Thomas More, by William Roper; Utopia, by Sir Thomas More; The Ninety-Five Theses, Address to the Christian Nobility & Concerning Christian Liberty, by Martin Luther

Vol. 37. LOCKE, BERKELY, HUME: Some Thoughts Concerning Education, by John Locke; Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous in Opposition to Sceptics and Atheists, by George Berkeley; An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, by David Hume

Vol. 38. HARVEY, JENNER, LISTER, PASTEUR: The Oath of Hippocrates; Journeys in Diverse Places, by Ambroise Pare; On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals, by William Harvey; The Three Original Publications on Vaccination Against Smallpox, by Edward Jenner; The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever, by Oliver Wendell Holmes; On the Antiseptic Principle of the Practice of Surgery, by Joseph Lister; Scientific Papers, by Louis Pasteur; Scientific Papers, by Charles Lyell

Vol. 39. FAMOUS PREFACES: Prefaces and Prologues




Vol. 43. AMERICAN HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS: American Historical Documents: 1000-1904

Vol. 44. SACRED WRITINGS 1: Confucian: The Sayings of Confucius; Hebrew: Job, Psalms & Ecclesiastes; Christian I: Luke & Acts

Vol. 45. SACRED WRITINGS 2: Christian II: Corinthians I & II & Hymns; Buddhist: Writings; Hindu: The Bhagavad-Gita; Mohammedan: Chapters from the Koran

Vol. 46. ELIZABETHAN DRAMA 1: Edward the Second, by Christopher Marlowe; Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth & The Tempest, by William Shakespeare

Vol. 47. ELIZABETHAN DRAMA 2: The Shoemaker’s Holiday, by Thomas Dekker; The Alchemist, by Ben Jonson; Philaster, by Beaumont and Fletcher; The Duchess of Malfi, by John Webster; A New Way to Pay Old Debts, by Philip Massinger

Vol. 48. THOUGHTS AND MINOR WORKS, PASCAL: Thoughts, Letters & Minor Works, by Blaise Pascal

Vol. 49. EPIC AND SAGA: Beowulf; The Song of Roland; The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel; The Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs

Vol. 50 INTRODUCTION, READER’S GUIDE, INDEXES; LECTURES: 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.


Jonathan Smalter, Bookseller
President, Yesterday’s Muse Books
Vice President, IOBA
Sellers of fine books in all categories, with specialties in:
Castles & Military Fortifications; Dystopian Literature
32 W Main St Ste 1
Webster, NY 14580
Phone: (585) 265-9295

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