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Fun While Paying Down Debt: the Harvard Classics

Here’s the situation: I have a lot of student loan debt, but I also have the same need for leisure and entertainment as debt-free humans. Accordingly, I want to spend my non-work time doing things that don’t cost money so I can put more of my paycheck toward student loans. Cue the Harvard Classics. The Harvard Classics is a 51-volume anthology of classic books from world literature first published in 1909.

The Harvard Classics are also known as Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf because Harvard President Charles Eliot believed 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.” I’m not much of a youth these days, but my education has plenty of gaps that the Classics could help fill.  The Five Foot Shelf was selected as a record of the “progress of man” from the earliest recorded periods to the close of the 19th century and was intended to serve as a time capsule from that era just about to end. He intended the books to serve as a portable university and not just a selection of the greatest books ever written (a role that the Great Books of the Western World later came to serve).

Dr. Eliot, who was T.S. Eliot’s cousin, served as president of Harvard for 40 years, but the Harvard Classics were not deeply affiliated with the institution. According to a 2001 article from the Harvard Magazine, the publisher P.F. Collier approached Dr. Eliot with a proposal to select the books that would constitute the “five foot shelf” he mentioned in his speech (which was given to a blue collar audience). Dr. Eliot was well-known at the time and a debate ensued over which works were selected for inclusion or excluded from the Classics. As unlikely as it sounds today, this debate generated letters to newspaper editors and articles in publications across the country.

All of this sounds pretty interesting, but best of all, I can read these works for FREE! No student loans. An extraordinary collection of literature and knowledge for no additional debt. So, in short, this blog (in addition to documenting my slow climb out of debt) will catalog my attempt at reading the Harvard Classics and document my thoughts on the contents.

Perhaps it was ignorance that lead me into student debt and I can cure my foolish naivety through a steady course of robust reading of the classics. Maybe nothing will come of it other than some enjoyable reading. In any case, stay tuned for future updates. If anyone has other suggestions for frugal, free, and enjoyable activities that spur personal growth, I’m all ears.

Hope everyone had a fun and frugal weekend. Onward and upward.