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Most of us struggle to choose which book to read next. Either we’ve run out of recommendations, or our “to read” list leaves us spoiled for choice. And with time being so short, we don’t want to risk wasting any of it on a book that’s less than par.

This article details a multi-volume collection of works known as The Harvard Classics, which can now be downloaded absolutely free of charge. These were meticulously collated by Charles W. Eliot in the early 20th Century, offering the best literature in the Western world.

We have also included links to where you can download these works, along with helpful pointers for reading them on your eReader, tablet, or digital device.

Admit You Can’t Read Everything

Harvard Classics

I’m currently sat in a three-story, circular library, surrounded by thousands of feet of books, and there’s a heavy sense of being overwhelmed hanging in the air. The aim of trying to read just 1 percent of these books in a lifetime is gloomily unattainable. Even the idea that we can dedicate our lives to consuming the numerous “classics,” is almost as futile.

Faced with this astounding choice of what to read next and — equally as important —what not to read, many often turn to the corruptible and buyable bestseller lists. But as we should all be aware by now, the correlation between number of books sold and the literary, even canonical, status of a book is dubious.

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There’s a reason why, in his incredibly pragmatic book, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, Pierre Bayard “advocates for redefining our culture’s expectations of reading, away from the linear, the absolutist, and the unbudgingly comprehensive, and towards the nonlinear, the relativist, the selective” (Maria Popova).

When we understand the importance of accepting that we cannot read even a fraction of the books we aspire to consume, the question becomes, “then which books should I read?”. After all, time is ticking. Becoming ruthlessly selective Indecisive? Make The Right Choices With These Apps Indecisive? Make The Right Choices With These Apps Have you heard of the paradox of choice? If you're like me and suffer from analysis paralysis, these apps will change your life. Read More is both necessary and burdensome. Thankfully, Charles W. Eliot worked tirelessly to rescue us from this dilemma.

Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf

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Charles W. Eliot (1834-1926) was an American academic who was to become Harvard’s longest serving president. During his dynamic career, Eliot also edited a mighty collection of classic literature titled The Harvard Classics (first published in 1909). This multi-volume collection — which in print occupies 5-feet on a bookshelf — soon became a classic in its own right. This is a collection which the website Bartleby describes as “the most comprehensive and well-researched anthology of all time”.

In the Editor’s Introduction to Vol. 50, Eliot explains:

“Within the limits of fifty volumes, containing 22,000 pages, I was to provide the means of obtaining such a knowledge of ancient and modern literature as seems essential to the twentieth-century idea of a cultivated man.”

This idea of a “cultivated man” (or woman) is central to many people’s desire to read. A choice in book is often made by virtue of whether it will shed light on a certain aspect of life. Whether it teaches us something about the human condition. Whether it will help us to understand our place in the world. Every one of the selections in the 22,000 pages of The Harvard Classics has been selected because it fits this ideal.

In a speech Eliot gave to a group of working-men, he declared that a 5-Foot bookshelf could be “a good substitute for a liberal education”. Adam Kirsch adds; “The Harvard Classics were intended not as a museum display-case of the ‘world’s best books,’ but as a portable university”.

If this is what you look for when choosing what next to read, then The Harvard Classics — otherwise known as Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf — offers a wide and deep well of wisdom, support, and entertainment, that will keep you going for decades.

And the best part? Due to the books in the collection being out of copyright, you can download your own copy of all (or some) of the volumes, completely free of charge.

Download the World’s Best Books

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With the collection now being out of copyright, there’s a number of places where you can download the works included in both The Harvard Classics and the Shelf of Fiction for free. If you would like more recent versions and translations of these works, you will have to pay for these variations. As usual, you download at your own risk, etc., so be sure to take the necessary precautions.

Gutenberg: this page offers a full list of alternative editions of the works. This means that they are not necessarily the same editions that Eliot was working from. Click on the work you would like to read, and select the download format you’re after (usually available are EPUB, Kindle, Plain Text and HTML). You can also download each of the files direct to your Dropbox, Google Drive, or iCloud Drive.

I would recommend copy and pasting the entire list (including hyperlinks) to your Evernote account (read our guide How To Use Evernote: The Unofficial Manual How To Use Evernote: The Unofficial Manual I see so many advantages to Evernote and we will explore some of them in depth later. But basically it all comes down to this: we are all becoming digital packrats. Read More ), or into a Word file, so you can easily access these links.

Archive.org: This is a more visual display of the works, with the ability to sort by views, title, date published, and author. Many of these works are available in more formats than Gutenberg offers, with the addition of PDF, Daisy, and Torrent. On the same site, you can also find the true, digital scans of the original volumes.

Bartleby: If you would simply like to search the works within the volume, or read them entirely online, Bartleby has you covered. The works are not available for download on this site, but access to the content is extremely easy. If needed, you could always save each of the pages to your kindle How To Save Websites To Read Later On Your Kindle How To Save Websites To Read Later On Your Kindle Our computers aren't made for reading long-form articles, but Kindles are. You can send websites to your Kindle and read them later, just like you'd read eBooks on your Kindle. This lets you use your... Read More , or Instapaper, but this could get arduous.

MyHarvardClassics: this is a simple site that offers basic PDF downloads (original scans) of each of the volumes in The Harvard Classics. Unfortunately, The Shelf of Fiction is not included.

Harvard Classics iOS App: for $0.99 you can download 33 works from The Harvard Classics onto your iPhone or iPad to read either online or offline. Also included are links to relevant Wikipedia articles so you can discover more about each work.

How to Read the Downloaded Files

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Once you have downloaded the volumes/works, you are able to read these directly on your computer (say, if you download it in the PDF format). If you’re looking to transfer these to an eBook reader or iPad, we have some articles that will help with this part of the equation:

If you’re hoping to read every volume, I wish you the best of luck. Perhaps some speed reading tips The Best Speed-Reading Extensions For Chrome The Best Speed-Reading Extensions For Chrome The Galaxy S5 just got Spritz, a speed-reading app that is shaking up the way we read on our tablets. What are the best speed-reading apps for Chrome? Let's take a look. Read More may come in handy. If you’re looking more simply at reading a select few, you may find understanding the other works without reading them How To Read Non-Fiction Books In Record Time How To Read Non-Fiction Books In Record Time If you're like the rest of us, your 'to read' list outstrips your reading. There is a method that will enable you to get through that reading list and save time. Read More  to be of great benefit.

A Peek Inside the Volumes

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When Eliot first published The Harvard Classics, he did not expect one to necessarily read it cover to cover. He explained that the 51 volumes could be seen as six different, and largely independent, “courses”. Each of these courses, would illuminate the progress that has been made in each area up to the 20th Century. These “courses”, constructed of unabridged texts, are:

  • The History of Civilization
  • Religion and Philosophy
  • Education
  • Science
  • Politics
  • Criticism of Literature and the Fine Arts

The following is a massively abridged selection of the entire bibliography of The Harvard Classics:

  • His Autobiography, by Benjamin Franklin
  • The Apology, Phaedo, and Crito, by Plato
  • The Golden Sayings, by Epictetus
  • Essays, Civil and Moral, and New Atlantis, by Francis Bacon
  • Complete Poems Written In English, by John Milton
  • Essays and English Traits, by Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • The Confessions, by Saint Augustine
  • Oedipus the King and Antigone, by Sophocles
  • On Friendship, On Old Age, and letters, by Cicero
  • The Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith
  • The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin
  • Aeneid, by Virgil
  • Don Quixote, part 1, by Cervantes
  • Fables, by Aesop
  • The Odyssey, by Homer
  • Autobiography and On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill
  • Tartuffe, by Molière
  • The Voyage of the Beagle, by Charles Darwin
  • The Wave Theory of Light and The Tides, by Lord Kelvin

On top of the 51 volumes of the Classics is an additional 20 volume “Shelf of Fiction“. These additional volumes include great works from The History of Tom Jones (Fielding), to David Copperfield (Dickens) among a great many others.

Limitations of the Collection

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Despite the comprehensive list of works within The Harvard Classics, it isn’t perfect. For starters, no female authors make an appearance. And, as has been pointed out in The “Five-Foot Shelf” Reconsidered, neither Marx, Nietzsche, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hegel, nor Freud, are mentioned.

This obviously pragmatic angle to the volumes can hardly come as a surprise, however. As mentioned earlier, Eliot is offering the works to create his idea of a “cultivated man”. This is his collection, and a promotion of abstract thought isn’t at the forefront. If you want that, your 5-foot-bookshelf will soon begin to expand.

Neither can we expect any “classics” from the last hundred years to appear, thereby missing an immense section of progress in science. Luckily, Eliot never intended this to be a complete overview of scientific developments.

Also, when it comes to literature, despite the included texts being hard to argue with, some omissions such as Homer’s The Iliad seem difficult to understand. There’s also a huge specter of “modern literature” that should arguably be conjoined with the existing volumes: Proust and Kafka to name just two.

If these drawbacks make you want to walk away from this collection, you should consider a couple of alternatives. Great Books of The Western World (many available for download here) is a slightly less renowned list. Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon also contains a huge (and heavily debated) reading list, but finding easy access to some of these is difficult.

It’s Still an Incredible Collection

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All of this isn’t to say that The Harvard Classics should be ignored. At the beginning of this article, I spoke about the importance of being able to choose what not to read. Eliot has done this for us. And with this task, he has had to reject a huge portion of literature that is often seen as “indispensable”.

If you want a condensed collection of “great works”, many other greats will necessarily be left out. That’s precisely the point.

When Christopher Beha decided to spend a year reading The Harvard Classics from cover to cover (read his book here), he looked back over the 22,000 pages he had read and uttered, “All the knowledge in the world is small recompense for the things we can’t possibly know”.

There will always be more. There will always be one person telling us to read one book over another. There will always be great books we never get around to reading.

Despite this, Eliot has still done a sterling job at bringing together a delectable, debatable, but overall fantastic reading list. A reading list that offers us, at no cost, years of great literature, with each item showing society at a turning point, or simply literature at its best. By taking advantage of Eliot’s work, you will no doubt become a more “cultivated” person.

Have you read any and/or all of the books included in The Harvard Classics? Which recent works would you add to Eliot’s reading list? Is there an alternative collection of works you would recommend your fellow MakeUseOf readers checking out? Please let us know in the comments section below.

Image Credits: Stockholm Public Library by Samantha Marx (Flickr), The Harvard Classics / Dr Eliots 5 Foot Shelf by FRGT/10 (Flickr), Downloading by Armando Sotoca (Flickr), Good Friday by Tim RT (Flickr), I <3 2 read by Kate Ter Haar (Flickr), A Good Read – Day 354/365 by Steven Guzzardi (Flickr), and Light Reading by quattrostagioni (Flickr)

  1. Craig
    January 29, 2016 at 8:54 pm

    Noet (www.noet.com), the academic/ scholarly division of Faithlife (formerly Logos) bible software has digitized and cross-linked the Harvard Classics, the Shelf of Fiction, and a TON of other volumes, including Civil War era newspapers, and much, much more. They also give away a free volume each month (not necessarily a volume from the Harvard Classics, or Shelf of Fiction). They have free reading apps for your PC (Mac or PC), and iOS, Android, and Windows tablets and phones. The PC/Mac software features a multi-pane setup, so that you can read works in parallel, or utilize multiple resources in your studies...

  2. Kenneth Boos
    September 6, 2015 at 6:19 pm

    The answer doesn't tell me if I can read via Computer, other Lit. Nobel Prizes, or is it that the collection is as I read, previous to nobel P? It would be a shame if so limited.

    • Rob Nightingale
      September 21, 2015 at 6:15 am

      The list was created in the early 20th Century, a similar time to when the Nobel Prize in Literature started, so if there are any in the list, there won't be many.

      In terms of whether you can read other winners via computer, sure, probably all of them, provided they've been converted into eBook format. But copyright expires 70 years after the death of the author, so accessing most of these for free will, technically, be illegal. Take a look on the Kindle library, and see which are available there.

  3. Kenneth Boos
    August 27, 2015 at 1:29 pm

    Hi, does it include ALL Literature Nobel Prizes? I've read two and those were great. I'm sure I've missed a lot.

    • Rob Nightingale
      September 6, 2015 at 6:12 pm

      No, these are all from before the Nobel prize in Literature was launched... :)

  4. fcd76218
    August 26, 2015 at 6:12 pm

    I would add:
    Das Kapital by Marx
    Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels
    Mein Kampf by Hitler

    I know that the addition of the last book would be very controversial. It is no way on the same literary level as the rest of Harvard Classics. The subject is objectionable to the vast majority of people. However, it is very enlightening and it gives us the background on a movement that greatly affected humanity.

    • Rob Nightingale
      September 6, 2015 at 6:13 pm

      I don't think any books, no matter their subject matter, should be off limits. The point is that the books are influential, and can be seen as canonical in the history of literature or 'ideas'.

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