When I was twenty one I decided that I was going to be a serious scholar. I became a philosophy major for one semester and gave up immediately after finals. But I still liked the idea of looking like a serious scholar, so when Christmas rolled around, I asked my parents for a 1910 set of The Harvard Classics, also known as “Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf of Knowledge.” I had no idea who Dr. Eliot was, but give feet sounded of knowledge sounded like great bragging rights.
“How smart are you?” people would say. And I’d stretch my arms very wide and say, “Oh, like so.”
On Christmas morning, I opened up the two massive boxes and looked down at the dusty, crinkled green spines as a cloud of dust billowed out.
No one was jealous of my gift, but my siblings were philistines, not at all interested in appearing to be serious scholars.
The idea with the 51-volume set was that it contained, according to Dr. Eliot, “A liberal education.” I started looking at the titles on the spines. I even recognized some of the names, like Plato. I had no idea who Benvenuto Cellini was, and I didn’t know what I Promessi Sposi was, but 51 volumes of knowledge!
Better yet, there were 52 weeks in a year, so I’d be done with my liberal education at the rate of slightly less than one book per week.
First I read Fruits of Solitude by William Penn. Next was The Golden Sayings by Epictetus. So far, so good. Aphorisms were easy. Then I ran into Poems and Songs by Robert Burns, and that was a slog. But I finished it, and then I rallied by a good round of Aesop’s Fables.
I realized that I was hunting for the easiest looking books, and decided to change it. So I jumped into The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini and spent, oh, I don’t know, a million pages watching him learn the ins and outs of sculpture. I think it was silver that he worked in.
And then the five foot shelf of knowledge began gathering dust, and that was that. I think I’d accumulated something like five inches of knowledge, which wouldn’t impress anyone.
Then my wife got pregnant, and in a panic of money-gathering and stockpiling, I boxed up my prized set of the Harvard Classics and drove them to Eborn Books in Salt Lake City. The manager came out to the car and looked in the boxes. He said he thought he could give me maybe $150 for them, and he’d been waiting for a set for a while.
But then he stopped, and he asked if I was okay. I must have looked really sad. I don’t remember feeling particularly stricken, but I’ve never been able to part with books easily.
“I don’t think I can buy these from you,” he said.
“Is the quality bad?” I said, with maybe a note of hope creeping into my voice. “I mean, they are from 1910. That’s really old.”
“No,” he said. “I just think you should hold onto them for a while. If you feel like loading them up again tomorrow, drive down here and I’ll take them.”
I never went back. I also never opened another volume of the set. And now it sits on my shelves, taking up five feet, as promised, and all of that amazing knowledge is going unused.
But I’ve still got my books, and I still feel happy when I look at them.
PS: I do read. A lot. Just not the Harvard Classics.