Comparing the Great Books of the Western World to the Harvard Classics (Part IV): Why Read the Harvard Classics or the Great Books of the Western World?

Please excuse mid-post rant.  If you disagree with my opinion, you will just have to forgive me, and let me my opinion.

Some of the search engine results that end up leading folks to my GBWW vs. HC series are “why should I read the harvard classics” and “why should I read the great books of the western world.”  Since there seems to be considerable demand for an answer to these questions, I figured I would take the time to give my two cents.  I will start with the Harvard Classics (HC). 

I have already said that the HC is lacking in the way of multicultural literature.  A quick look at the list of readings tells you so much.  In my view, there really is room for an edition of great books of the world, or a world classics series, given how bad the HC is on this.  Someone like Harold Bloom would disagree with me, of course; but I have very particular reasons that I am open to a much more multicultural root, reasons I don’t think Bloom would disagree with.  Primarily, cultures see the world in different ways.  A sufficiently observant American visiting England would notice so much, just by the way the English reserve every possible space in urban areas for greenery, and by the way their grocery stores are stocked —there is an evident, possibly subconscious, appeal to naturalism, in terms of respect for (and the room in their way of life made for) natural foods and natural settings.  Now, if we are talking about the sentiments of progress in Victorian England, such sentiments buoy up like the cream in non-homogenized milk.  It is this cream that we want to taste from different nations in different times of history.  To say that nothing in Mongolian literature —or Venezuelan, or African descent, or whomever’s literature— existed, ever, worth including in something like the HC is like saying that these cultures never had cream.  Even Eastern Europe has been excluded.  In admitting this shortcoming, there are fantastic reasons for reading the Harvard Classics.  Let me begin with literacy.

The swathe of literature offered by the HC might be the most concentrated set of works, in terms of challenging the reader to higher and higher levels of comprehension, that I have ever come across.  I have always been a big supporter of reading philosophy for increased reading comprehension, even if you have only a slight interest in philosophy.  The reason is that conveying ideas requires craftsmanship with the English language, and the adequate reception of those ideas is dependent upon reading ability.  That is, the more complex the thoughts being conveyed are, the more ability that the reader requires in taking the raw materials (the words and sentences) and putting them into their intended form (the ideas).  To a very great extent, ideas deconstructed into linguistic components and reconstructed from them, by the reader, back into the original form, ideas.  It is in the work that the reader must to that constitutes the capacity called “literacy.”  But “Why the Harvard Classics?,” you might say.  I think the collection has some of the best sets of concepts to achieve the development of higher degrees of literacy, whether these concepts are imagery, plots, and suggestive undertones of a fictional story, the deep spiritual inquiry of religious texts, the emotion-plumbing quality of poetry, and the abstruse ideas of philosophical thought.  Even in presenting these examples, I have marked that there are additional cognitive processes that benefit from reading the HC, not just the more abstract modes that philosophy is associated with.  That is, even if you are very much interested in philosophy, as I am, a stroll through the HC will do you some good.  It is very difficult, maybe impossible, to overstate the value the HC have in advancing literacy.  One of the things I have found to be problematic among educator in American (K-12) schools is that they intend students to get better at reading by doing the same level of reading continually.  They make it look like an impossible mission to teach a child to read, lowering standards at every chance, because their method is not working; and it goes without saying that the problem is the student, not the method, or so they seem to think.  It has been my experience that it is not that the reading is too hard for youths, but that it is not hard enough.  What’s more, the readings that tend to be given to the youths are vapid and meaningless, and the young develop an aversion to reading altogether.  I simply think that the works found in the Harvard Classics should be imposed at a younger age.  That many adults haven’t read them (though many wish they had) is a product of the education system; but, rest assured, it is never too late to reap the benefits of the HC.  Summary of reason number one: Literacy!

Since I hit upon the relevance of philosophy in this discussion, let me say something about why one may want to read the HC, even though they are heavily into philosophy (or something similar that is very demanding of comprehension, e.g., law) and an outstanding reader.  As I touched on above, there are certainly different kinds of cognitive processes that one will engage in, when reading various kinds of literature.  Coming from the more abstract fields of study (physics, math, Kantian philosophy, logic, etc.), I, and my compatriots, have naturally less exposure to aesthetics.  This is an area that, especially, the Harvard Classics is strong in.  With three volumes dedicate to English poetry, I think there can be no doubt about it, and the judgment is only reinforced by the actual selection.  Additionally, there is something very, very different in the cognitive processes of following an argument or following a complex storyline, where many characters (depth of character included) come together in an ordered chaos of interactions.  In all of these respects, and many more, I think the HC is a wonderfully chosen compilation.

There is something very refreshing about the Harvard Classics, in terms of how it orients the mind.  The place that each of us occupies in a human tradition cannot go without consideration.  I think this is a part of living an examined life.  Though we are individuals, we have this genetic heritage to people, events, and cultures past.  I think the HC provides the appropriate context for developing this more holistic perspective of ourselves, allowing us to examine who we are and in what ways we are truly unique (and a part of something much bigger, too).  This is, to my mind, precisely what people lack when we see them acting in absurd and destructive ways, regardless the destructiveness of scale, regardless of whether inflicted upon the self or upon society.  One’s orientation toward humanity and Cosmos is as much a part of mental and spiritual health —the individual’s health— as it is social, communal, national, and the species’ health.  This may seem like a big task for so modest a set of books to fulfill, but it really isn’t.  Literary tradition past is really a fossilization of human experience brought to life by the mind of the reader.  How many times I have read Beowulf, and forgot that what I was reading was hundreds and hundreds of years old.  When we read these works and remind ourselves of human triumphs, defeats, pleasure, and pains, we stand in their stead for a moment because they also stand in ours.  “Fossils” to a point, but very much alive in the sense that the common bonds between people over times, if we care to recognize them, tell us more about ourselves than some of us can say on our own; these works give a basis and a perspective that we could not otherwise begin to grasp; and this is a basis that, to some extent, transcends the idiosyncrasies of cultural histories (my reason for ranting about the value of Greek literature and arts in Part III of this series).  By the way, one can extend much of this to the arts, as well.

Finally, I would like to make a push in advocation of reading all of the Harvard Classics, not just selecting a few.  The reason is that the set presents such a wonderful blend of different aspects of literature.  There are scientific treatises, classic literary fiction, poetry, spiritual texts, travelogues, biographies, and many others.  While the ratios are not quite what I would have them be, this is, nonetheless, a wonderful spread of works that are too good to pass on, granted the benefit of personal perspective that they may yield.

I could say much of the same about the Great Books of the Western World, but the Great Books are much more for the later-in-life crowd and scholars.  This makes sense, though.  The Harvard Classics were compiled to give a “complete undergraduate education,” though few undergraduates read as much, these days.  Moreover, I recommend the HC to most people, if I am going to recommend either wholesale, because the HC are designed to give that much more holistic and balanced, slightly less cerebral plenum of literature.  For those having read the HC, looking for something a bit more, I usually suggest the ancient Greek works in the GBWW.  I just think they are that important.  Besides, so much of our modern intellectual verbiage includes endless references to these works.  In the everyday, you may hear someone called a “Cassandra”; one of Freud’s complexes was called “Oedipal”; one Nobel Laureate and philosopher referred to “Sisyphus.”  Who were these folks, anyways?  Reading the Greeks gives you the insight —or you can just read the Wikipedia pages, gleaning atomic facts, no understanding, and a superficial usage (dare I say, “waste”?) of time.  I just want to be clear that, while I have quietly pushed the GBWW, I do think that the HC are more accessible and probably more productive for the average and slightly above average thinker and reader.

I would say that the one group of people that are neither advanced in age, or in scholarship, who I would recommend the GBWW to is the group interested especially in philosophy.  Nearly all of the works are chosen for the philosophical value.  Just take a look at the non-philosophy titles.  The Miser is quite a philosophical play; The Brothers Karamazov is deeply philosophical; The Principles of Psychology is philosophical; and Gulliver’s Travels is philosophical.  There are some that aren’t really philosophical, but they are far and few between.

There are a great many books to read in this world.  Certainly, there is a case to be made that there are many other great books to read than the ones on these lists, the HC and GBWW.  However, I would say that, unless you are really sure you have a good plan to get a very high quality blend of books, especially a holistic blend, I would say that sticking with the Harvard Classics and Great Books of the Western World is among the top ways to go.  Some selections will be a mere matter of taste.  There is no need to read them all, and I have never heard of anyone reading all of them straight through; so going back and forth between these sets and other selections, not included in these sets (perhaps, more modern), is a good way to go.  That’s what I have done (and am still doing).  I hope you feel I have given you a few good reasons to dig into the Harvard Classics and the Great Books of the Western World.  Happy reading!

Note: For folks particularly interested in the importance of a classical education, take a look at Jeffrey Brenzel’s lecture on the topic by clicking this sentence.


1 Comment

Filed under Great Books and Harvard Classics Series, Literature

One response to “Comparing the Great Books of the Western World to the Harvard Classics (Part IV): Why Read the Harvard Classics or the Great Books of the Western World?

  1. David

    Thank you for taking the time to write this 4 part series. A few points sprang to mind as I read, and I thought I’d write them here.

    As a philosophy major, I had already read and written about most of the philosophy in GBWW. For that reason, I preferred the HC, as they would presumably expose me to more things I had never seen or thought about before.

    With regard to Kant, having read him in school, I agree with you that it’s fascinating stuff, but in my opinion besides being unreadable by most people, the “insight density” is not worth the slog. Presumably one or both of those reasons are why “Critique of Pure Reason” weren’t included.

    Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil” is my favorite of his works and it made complete sense to me why they’d include it. Taken of itself, it’s the best overall summary of his thought. Just the chapter, “What is Noble?” will be a revelation to people who have never been exposed to alternative moral axes. Everything else in Nietzsche is, as you say, piecemeal and easy to misunderstand out of context. BGE is relatively complete.

    The point about Eastern books not being included is confusing. Maybe I miss your point, but why *would* Eastern texts be included in anthologies of Western culture? If “Great Books of the Western World” was instead just called “Great Books of the World,” and then omitted Eastern texts, well, then the criticism would make sense. But as it is, it’s like asking a guy who’s studying his family lineage why he doesn’t research someone else’s family instead.

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