Friday, July 31, 2009

July 31: Charm School for Women (Vol. 27, pp. 148-150)

That 18th century English troublemaker, Daniel Defoe, landed in the stocks on this day in 1703 for "defiance of public opinion." One of his opinions that got him into was the idea that women should have an education equal to that of men.

His essay, "The Education of Women," seems self-evident today, but it was just one of the writings that got him in deep trouble with the powers of the time.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

July 30: The First English Colony in North America (Vol. 33, pp. 263-273)

On this day in 1583, Sir Humphrey Gilbert landed on Newfoundland, near what is today the city of St. John's. Even in July, Newfoundland is not exactly the most hospitable of spots, as he tells the story in "Voyage to Newfoundland."

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

July 29: Stonehenge: England's Unsolved Mystery (Vol. 5, pp. 453-462)

During a visit to England, Ralph Waldo Emerson went to see Stonehenge and expressed amazement at what he called the "uncanny stones." Even one of America's greatest thinkers couldn't quite wrap his brain around this monument.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

July 28: An Idyl of Agriculture (Vol. 27, pp. 61-69)

English poet Abraham Cowley died this day in 1667, but instead of his poetry, we get prose today. His essay, "On Agriculture," reads much easier than his poems as he gets gushy about the joys of farming.

“We may talk what we please,” he writes “of lilies, and lions rampant, and spread eagles, in fields d’or or d’argent; but, if heraldry were guided by reason, a plough in a field arable would be the most noble and ancient arms.”

Monday, July 27, 2009

July 27: Once Surgeons Operated in Frock Coats (Vol. 38, pp. 257-267)

On this day in 1867, Lord Joseph Lister published a paper on antiseptic treatment, which is today's selection.

Lister, the surgeon to Queen Victoria, built on the work of Pasteur when he realized that the formation of pus was due to bacteria, and proceeded to develop his antiseptic surgical methods.

The immediate success of the new treatment regime led to its general adoption, and infections are a lot less deadly now than they were in the 19th century.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

July 26: Peace Amid Strife (Vol. 7, pp. 205-211)

The German monk Thomas à Kempis died this day in 1471. The author of "The Imitation of Christ" led a cloistered life apart from the upheavals of 15th century Europe. Deep religious piety, for those who may like it.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

July 25: A Goddess and Her Mortal Love (Vol. 49, pp. 391-395)

More Norse nonsense, this time the "Lay of Brynhild" -- the story of the daughter of Woden who carried dead heroes to Valhalla, until she fell from grace and fell for Sigurd, a hot mortal dude.

Friday, July 24, 2009

July 24: Indian Sorcery Blamed for an Earthquake (Vol. 29, pp. 306-316)

Charles Darwin and the merry men of the good ship Beagle rejoin us today with this story about a South American city ruined by an earthquake. The indigenous people blamed the women for casting a spell to make a volcano erupt. Darwin knew better.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

July 23: Friendship Above Love? (Vol. 3, pp. 65-72)

Sir Francis Bacon was knighted this day, so we get this meditation on friendship and what is the true test of a friend.

In Bacon's view, "How many things are there which a man cannot, with any face or comeliness, say or do himself? A man can scarce allege his own merits with modesty, much less extol them; a man cannot sometimes brook to supplicate or beg; and a number of the like. But all these things are graceful in a friend’s mouth, which are blushing in a man’s own."

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

July 22: Trapped in a Cave with a Frenzied Giant (Vol. 22, pp. 120-129)

In this passage from Homer's "Odyssey," we find our hero and his crew stranded on an island of one-eyed giants. Odysseus found a way to blind the giant holding them captive and escape.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

July 21: Scotland's Own Poet (Vol. 6, pp. 70-79)

Robert Burns died this day in 1796, so we get more of his doggerel today. Great if you're a Scot, not so much if you're not.

Monday, July 20, 2009

July 20: A Cobbler in Jail (Vol. 15, pp. 59-69)

John Bunyan was thrown in jail for preaching without a license. He should have been thrown in jail for writing "Pilgrim's Progress," which the editors call "the greatest allegory in any language, second only to the Bible, and I call unreadable rubbish.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

July 19: She Wanted Heroes All to Herself (Vol. 33, pp. 311-320)

Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned on this day in 1603. He was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth, but when he fell in love with another woman, he was thrown in the clink. Today's reading, "Discovery of Guiana," is more of that heroic explorer nonsense the editors seem to love.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

July 18: They Loved In Vain (Vol. 18, pp. 359-368)

I wasn't aware that Robert Browning also wrote plays, but then again, drama is one of my literary blind spots. But this selection from "The Blot in the 'Scutcheon" is as stilted as 17th and 18th century drama -- even if this was written in the 1830s.

Friday, July 17, 2009

July 17: A Throne for Son or Stepson? (Vol. 26, pp. 133-148)

The playwright John Baptiste Racine was elected to the French Academy on this day in 1673. Racine was a contemporary of Corneille, except that he supposedly has more humanized characters in his plays than Corneille's. It's hard to tell, though, since Racine's work — excerpted here from "Phaedre" — is just as unreadable as Corneille's.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

July 16: The Mohammedan Jesus (Vol. 45, pp. 908-913)

This day in 622 A.D., marked the beginning the Muslim era of time, so we get this selection from the Koran.

Most Muslim haters don't know it, but Jesus Christ is part of Islam's pantheon of prophets, and the story of his birth is part of the Koran. It's just in Islam, Jesus plays second fiddle to Mohammed.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

July 15: When Elizabeth Dined (Vol. 35, pp. 271-288)

More from Holinshed today on the manners of the Elizabethian era, this time — how they behaved at the dinner table in the presence of the Queen and her noblemen. Of interest only to the historical obsessives.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

July 14: The French People Triumph (Vol. 24, pp. 268-273)

Allons enfants de la Patrie, Le jour de gloire est arrivé!
(Come, children of the Fatherland, The day of glory has arrived!)

Those opening words from La Marseillaise are for Bastille Day, the day in 1789 when that fortress prison was captured and the French Revolution was set in motion.

Unfortunately, today's selection from Edmund Burke, a conservative who deplored the excesses of the French Revolution, is the wrong choice for this occasion.

Monday, July 13, 2009

July 13: Athenians Also Complained of Taxes (Vol. 12, pp. 47-57)

Harry S. Truman once said that "the only thing new is the history you haven't read." He was a big fan of Plutarch, and he probably loved today's reading.

The citizens of ancient Greece complained about their taxes being too high and how Pericles was spending the money, but as Plutarch tells it, Pericles made sure he used those tax revenues for public works and beautification projects that solidified his support with Athenians. This allowed him the popular support he needed for more ambitious undertakings.

Somewhere, Harry is smiling at that story.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

July 12: But He Walked! (Vol. 28, pp. 395-405)

Henry David Thoreau was born this day in 1817, and amazingly, today's essay, "Walking," is the only piece of his in this series.

In 1909, Thoreau apparently wasn't yet seen as the inspiration of environmentalists, freedom fighters, back-to-the-landers and every person who ever wanted to drop out of society and live simply and as close to nature as possible.

Not including "Walden" or his essay "Civil Disobedience" is one of the more glaring omissions of this series.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

July 11: Star Gazing — A Cure for Tired Minds (Vol. 30, pp. 311-321)

Astronomer and scientist Simon Newcomb died this day in 1909. Today's selection, "The Extent of the Universe," was written in 1906 and is the most modern entry in the volume of scientific writings.

It is a good glimpse into how much the pioneers in the field of astronomy opened the door for all the subsequent explorers of space. It's truly amazing how well Newcomb's work holds up today, considering it was written in an age before supercomputers and space telescopes.

And he offers this advice: go outside on a clear, moonless night and look up at the Milky Way. If you live in a place where light pollution is at a minimum, savor the view and be humbled by its magnificence.

Friday, July 10, 2009

July 10: America's First Immigrants (Vol. 43, pp. 14-20)

The Vikings beat Columbus to the New World by several centuries, and today's reading, "The Voyages to Vinland," tells some of the story. Unfortunately, what should be an exciting story is rendered into something not interesting here.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

July 9: A Little Lying Now and Then (Vol. 3, pp. 7-19)

Sir Francis Bacon became Privy Councilor this day in 1616. In this reading, Bacon offers his attempt to answer the eternal question, "What is truth?"

Bacon finds that absolute truth is important in theological or philosophical principles, but in what he calls "the truth of civil business ... clear and round dealing in the honor of man's nature" and that the mixture of falsehood "is like allow in gold and silver, which may make the metal work better, but it embaseth it."

A touch of falsehood may make a man feel better, Bacon says, and the elimination of it from daily affairs would "leave the minds of a number of men poor shrunken things, full of melancholy and imposition."

In other words, without white lies and rationalizations, we would all have a tough time getting through each day.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

July 8: Italy's Fair Assassin (Vol. 18, pp. 288-300)

Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned this day in 1822, so we get his play, "Cenci." As dramas go, this one sinks to the bottom.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

July 7: Scandal That Lurked Behind Lace and Powder (Vol. 18, pp. 115-128)

English playwright and politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan was buried in Westminister Abbey on this day in 1816. With characters named Snake, Backbite, Careless and Sneerwell, there's little doubt about what Sheridan's most famous play, "The School for Scandal," is about – reckless gossip and scandal loosed upon the land, couched in the stuffiness of 18th century nobility.

Monday, July 6, 2009

July 6: The Origin of "Utopia" (Vol. 36, pp. 135-142)

Sir Thomas More, the "Man for All Seasons," was executed by Henry VIII on this day in 1535. He was the man who invented the word, "utopia," which certainly was not the England he lived in during the 16th century. More envisioned a world where an intelligently managed state perfected happiness. Given he was living in a time of doltish despots, you can see why More dreamed of something better.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

July 5: A Tailor Entertains a King (Vol. 16, pp. 149-162)

It's strange to follow up one of the most stirring and inspiring documents in American history with a selection from "The Thousand And One Nights." But the editors do.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

July 4: Some Chose to Remain British Subjects (Vol. 43, pp. 150-155)

Yes, it's true that some of the residents of the British colonies in America stayed loyal to the crown during the Revolutionary War and didn't want an independent government. Those are not the people we celebrate on this day.

We instead celebrate the brave men who gathered in Philadelphia on this day in 1776 and ratified a document whose words echo through the ages — the Declaration of Independence. We celebrate the men who ignored the nervous nellies that feared the crown, and told the most powerful monarch in the world to perform an anatomical impossibility upon himself.

Friday, July 3, 2009

July 3: Gettysburg by an Eyewitness (Vol. 43, pp. 326-335)

On this day in 1863, the pivotal battle of the American Civil War was winding down. Frank Aretas Haskell's "The Battle of Gettysburg" is a perfect example of how history is written by the victors. After all, in 1909, Gettysburg was still in the living memory of the editors of this series, and in the minds of the Yankee elite that ran Harvard, it was a glorious victory.

Haskell's account was written just after the battle as letters to his brother. The horrors of the battle were still fresh and the portrayal of certain of his fellows officers and soldiers in the Union army was unsparing. It is a great primary source for anyone who wants to know more about the bloodiest three days in American history.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

July 2: "Julius" Becomes "July" (Vol. 12, pp. 310-315)

Julius Caesar was not a man to rest on his laurels. He was always seeking new glories to pursue. So, to insure that the dates for certain festivals would fall at the same time each year, he tweaked the calendar and took the liberty of naming the mid-summer month after himself. Plutarch gives us a glimpse into the restless and relentless ambition of Caesar.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

July 1: Darwin Not First Evolutionist (Vol. 11, pp. 5-17)

On this day in 1858, Charles Darwin published the outline of what became "Origin of Species." While Darwin gets all the credit (and blame) for evolution, he admits here — in the opening of "Origin" — that he wasn't the only one, and certainly not the first one, who thought of the idea. He was, however, the man who synthesized the work of his predecessors, put a fresh spin on it, and put it all together in this book.

July 1: At the Midpoint

For those of you who have just walked in, welcome. For those of you who been reading along, congratulations for sticking it out this far.

Just to review what's going here, this is a day-by-day reading of The Harvard Classics, based on the reading guide that's included in the 1930 edition that I am doing to mark the centennial of the series. The guide picks a 15-minute reading for each day of the year, which I list in the title of each post. The volume and page numbers are based on the print edition, so those of you who are following along with the online edition at might have a hard time find the selections.

I give a brief comment on each reading. I'm not an English literature major, just a journalist and writer who tastes run more toward non-fiction. So, I am a bit more harsh on the poetry and plays than someone who enjoy that sort of stuff.

Not everything in this set holds up well, and one can while away the hours picking the works and authors that ought to be included and the ones that should be deleted. But if you view The Harvard Classics as a snapshot of what the educated elite of the first decade of the 20th century thought was important, it makes for an interesting contrast between today's canon and the canon of 1909.

So, thanks for stopping by, and on with the show.