La vie est belle !

The “5-foot Shelf”


“The elements of a liberal education” can be had with fifteen minutes of reading per day from a collection of books that fit on a “5-foot shelf.”  That was what Harvard President Charles W. Eliot promised when he and Collier & Sons published the Harvard Classics in 1909.  The Harvard Shelf of Fiction came a few years later in 1917. The books themselves are leather-bound and look like a set of encyclopedia. There are 51 volumes of “Classics” and 20 volumes in the “Shelf of Fiction.”


I grew up in the presence of these books and never realized it. They had belonged to my mother’s grandparents, and she had read them on visits to their house when she was a girl. I’m guessing that there wasn’t a lot of choice, book-wise, at their house, and my mom is the type who will read a cereal box if there isn’t anything better. Of course in this instance, she struck a gold-mine.  Years later, after my parents were married, my mom inherited these books.  They sat on the upper two shelves of a built-in bookcase in our house. I doubt that she or anyone else ever read them again.


The Harvard Classics as I remember them


Recently my mom has decided to “downsize.”  In preparation for that, she wanted to get rid of most of her books (she has a tablet now with the Kindle app installed!)   She told me she was going to get rid of the Classics, and I balked a little, just because I have a love of old books. That is how my great-grandparents Harvard Classics (and quite a few other old books) moved from the home that I grew up in to my own home.  I bought a new bookshelf just for them.

the "5-foot Shelf"

The Harvard Classics “chez moi.”

So now I am faced with the idea that I really should read these. The copyright date is 1909, and I can’t find a printing date in them. I really know very little about book editions, so I don’t really know how old they are, but they are definitely old. The first two volumes are missing, so it isn’t a complete set, but all of them are in good condition, just a bit dusty.


I had a wild idea of blogging my progress with reading them, but I’m really not sure how dedicated I’ll be to the process. On verra. My mom also brought a bunch of other old books, which I put on the shelf under the Classics. Some of these my dad may or may not have “acquired” from his high school and college libraries.  Some of them have “Property of XXX library” stamped on the flyleaves. I am going to assume that they were books that the libraries “purged” and gave to the students or that they were in a library book sale.  Some of them belonged to my uncles.


It’s funny, but I normally do not write in books, with the exception of textbooks or books I’m reading for French bookclub. In those I sometimes underline words I want to look up later or phrases I want to remember. I definitely don’t write in books for the sake of writing in them.  However, if I find writing in an old book, I find it charming sometimes. I like inscriptions or book-plates indicating that the books were gifts from various relatives.

In one of the books, my uncles had written that a particular book was “#203 of the Heith’s library.”  I assume that must have meant my two uncles’ personal library?  In their copy of “Swiss Family Robinson”, my uncle wrote his name in the book-plate, and then he wrote, “turn to page 139.”   Of course, I had to do so. It was a nice illustrated edition, and page 139 turned out to be a picture of the harnessing of the tortoise. The caption reads, “He accordingly fell into the track of the current, and drew us straight towards our usual place of landing.”



In one of the school library books, somebody, probably a girl, had written the lyrics to the song “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You”  by Styne & Loesser.  She erroneously wrote, “I don’t want to waltz without you” which just goes to show that lyrics have been “misheard” for a really long time.  I found it interesting.  The song probably doesn’t have anything to do with the book itself, which happens to be James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Spy.”



Well, enough about old books. I really could go on forever about them. I’ll just leave you with the most famous version of “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You”  which I think is a beautiful WWII-era song.

Et vous?  What kinds of “old book” treasures do you have, mes chers lecteurs ? Tell me in the comments! I love “old book” stories 🙂



3 Responses to “The “5-foot Shelf””

  1. John Holton

    Mom had in her possesion of a box of my grandfather’s memories, including what appeared to be a commonplace book, when she died. I brought it back to him, and he asked if there was anything I wanted from the box, so I went to get the commonplace book, but it had already disappeared. In fact, all the family things she had amassed in life were gone, including a book of James Whitcomb Riley’s poetry my great-grandfather had given my great-grandmother when they married around the turn of the century. Somehow, they managed to miss the box that held my great-grandfather’s Bible and some of his Knights of Columbus regalia among other things, so I grabbed that. If they ask, I’m going to tell them I’ll trade them for the commonplace book…

    What a boon you got! A kid could read the books and get a better education than they can buy for $45,000 these days, I’ll bet. Enjoy them!

    Liked by 1 person

    • jetgirlcos

      A commonplace book would be quite interesting! Maybe it will come back to you somehow. Of course, a family Bible is always a great treasure as well. Thanks for sharing!



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