Wooden Bookshelves

A FIVE FOOT READING LIST

Melissa Bohbot

With exams over and my summer internship commencing, I found myself in my childhood bedroom wondering how to stay engaged while everything in my city remained closed. While I am usually an avid reader, as I moved home and reconnected with friends and family, I found myself having to plan time to read, rather than finding myself lost in the pages. As quarantine continued and the inevitable boredom set in, those around me recommended learning something new. Wanting to, at the very least, be productive, I decided to learn from a five-foot shelf. 


That is to say that I came across former Harvard President Charles W. Eliot’s Five-Foot Shelf, otherwise known as the Harvard Classics, a collection of 51 books that are, in his words, a “substitute for a liberal education.“ All the big names and important ideas are here: Sophocles, Chaucer, Goethe, etc., and the further I got through the list, the more I realized just how much the ideas of these authors still resonate through to today. Here is an example from Marcus Aurelius: “a limit of time is fixed for thee, which if thou dost not use for clearing the clouds from thy mind, it will go and thou wilt go, and it will never return.”


Of course not all these books will be a revelation. I am certain that my eyes glazed over most of Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’. But I wasn’t specifically looking for something fascinating and what I was looking for, I have so far found in this collection: a reminder of how much classics can change the way you understand who you are, who you would like to be, how you see the world, and how you treat yourself and others as you navigate it. So, the next time you search for something to learn in quarantine, consider taking on a former Harvard president’s curated collection.