The home I grew up in had a goodly number of books, the most significant being the Bible. Yet more important to me in my high school years was the Harvard “Five-Foot Shelf” of classics. This fifty-one volume anthology was based on the premise (in 1909) that all the writings necessary for a liberal education could fit on a five-foot shelf.
Thanks to that five feet worth of books and their excellent index, which enabled quick research, I earned a steady stream of A’s in what were called “high achievement” English classes. (Also, kudos to my mother who typed my essays and, as a professional writer, I suspect couldn’t stop herself from correcting punctuation and syntax.)
Out on my own at age twenty, I no longer had that five-foot set of books, much less the shelf to put them on. Then a feature in the local newspaper caught my eye. Encyclopedia Britannica had come out with its own fifty-four volume anthology called “Great Books.” To promote it, the publisher provided newspapers with a weekly essay based on content from the “Great Books.” Readers were invited to send in questions, and if their question inspired an essay, they got a free set of “Great Books.”
I wanted those books. I sent in the question, “Why is there war?” not because I particularly wanted to know. I was certain it was the kind of question the essay writer could quickly research and quote several centuries worth of great minds. I won the books. They happen to take up five feet of shelf space and have been boxed and re-shelved with every one of my several moves for fifty-five years.
Have I read them all? Uh, no. Volume One includes a ten-year plan for reading the entire set. It feels a bit presumptuous, at age seventy-five, to jump into a ten-year reading plan. But I guess it’s now or never.
(To celebrate my 75th birthday this month, I’m posting daily stories about the stuff I’ve acquired over a lifetime and can’t let go of. I invite you to consider and possibly share the stories that make you treasure your own stuff.)