The Harvard Classics, commonly referred to as “The Five-Foot Shelf of Books,” represents a comprehensive 51-volume anthology of classic literature. This collection was curated and edited by Charles W. Eliot, the esteemed president of Harvard University. Originally published in 1909, Eliot proposed that a mere 15 minutes of daily reading from a carefully selected assortment of books, compact enough to fit on a five-foot shelf (initially suggested as a three-foot shelf), could provide the essential elements of a liberal education. P. F. Collier and Son, the publisher, saw an opportunity in Eliot’s vision and challenged him to bring it to fruition.
Eliot collaborated with Professor William A. Neilson, an expert in English literature, over the course of a year. Eliot determined the works to be included, while Neilson selected specific editions and crafted introductory notes. Each of the 51 volumes contained 400–450 pages, featuring complete or substantial segments of significant literary works from across the globe. The objective was to encapsulate, “so far as possible, entire works or complete segments of the world’s written legacies.”
The Harvard Classics received extensive promotion from Collier and Son, including advertisements in publications like Collier’s, and achieved considerable success. This anthology remains a testament to Eliot’s vision of accessible, daily intellectual enrichment through the exploration of timeless literary masterpieces.