Christopher Beha is an editor at Harper’s Magazine. The Whole Five Feet, his memoir of reading the Harvard Classics, was released last week by Grove Press. He’s passed along to us these thoughts (with a cameo by Matthew Arnold).
One hundred years ago this month, the publishers Collier and Son began offering subscriptions to the Harvard Classics, a 51-volume set of literature ranging from Homer and Plato to Darwin and Whitman. The success of the Five Foot Shelf, as the set was known, proved that great books could be made accessible to a popular audience, and it sparked a movement that had enormous influence on our culture throughout the century that followed.
While critics are sometimes faulted for being too backward-looking, the “Great Books” provide a historical context in which the hot new title of the season can be judged. As an added bonus, they prove that criticism itself can achieve the status of lasting literature. The Harvard Classics include many great literary essays, among them one in which Matthew Arnold argues for the value of judging contemporary writers against the best of the past:
“If he is a dubious classic, let us sift him; if he is a false classic, let us explode him. But if he is a real classic, if his work belongs to the class of the very best (for this is the true and right meaning of the word classic, classical), then the great thing for us is to feel and enjoy his work as deeply as ever we can, and to appreciate the wide difference between it and all work which has not the same high character.”
Logic tells us that most titles under review each month won’t meet this standard, but it remains the critic’s greatest hope to discover that new work that will earn a place on the permanent shelf. Before she can recognize such a work, the critic must know what’s already on that shelf.