Tuesday, June 30, 2009

June 30: Rather King Than Majority (Vol. 25, pp. 195-203)

A selection from John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty," where he discusses the tyranny of the majority and how it is as much an evil as the misrule of king.

This reading might be more a reflection of the fear of the editors of a populist uprising against the elites, but "On Liberty" remains one of the essential essays on the meaning of democracy. Mill is dense and wordy and tough to read, but his thoughts are undeniably important.

Monday, June 29, 2009

June 29: "Is That a Dagger I See Before Me?" (Vol. 46, pp. 357-365)

On this day in 1613, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre was destroyed by fire, which is why get "MacBeth" — the story of a king who killed his way to the top — for today's reading. Of course, since this is a play, our protagonist expresses remorse for his actions. There are no ghosts haunting the real life MacBeths who have blood on their hands.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

June 28: Pages from the Pampas Book of Etiquette (Vol. 29, pp. 51-60)

Darwin and his merry band land in what is today's Uruguay and hang out with the Spaniards in today's selection from "Voyage of the Beagle." Not compelling at all.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

June 27: Do You Take Poison Daily? (Vol. 3, pp. 22-26)

Sir Francis Bacon enrolled in Cambridge University on this day in 1576. In today's selection from his "Essays," Sir Francis makes the not exactly earthshaking observation that envy is a poison, an infection that ruins sound men's souls.

Friday, June 26, 2009

June 26: In the Lair of the Green-Eyed Monster (Vol. 49, pp. 45-50)

"Beowulf," the epic poem that is the bane of every high school student's existence, is today's selection. Ugh! Fortunately, it's only a small taste.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

June 25: Advice to Virgins from a Wise Man (Vol. 40, pp. 334-340)

"Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, Old Time is still a-flying; And this same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying?" Advice from Robert Herrick, an oversexed country minister to convince young women to marry, lest they become old maids.

For a man of the cloth, Herrick's poems spend an inordinate amount of time dwelling on young love and sex — albeit camouflaged in flower allusions.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

June 24: Had No Right Hand (Vol. 16, pp. 120-133)

Another selection from "The Thousand and One Nights," this time about a handsome man who did everything with his left hand — out of necessity since the right one got lopped off in his pursuit of gold and riches.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

June 23: Greek Scholar at Three (Vol. 25, pp. 9-20)

James Mill, the father of John Stuart Mill, died this day in 1836. In this selection from his autobiography, John Stuart Mill tells how his father taught him Greek and Latin when he was three. Young John also got plenty of arithmetic and copious amounts of history and philosophy — Gibbon, Plutarch, Hume and the like.

That's plenty of heavy lifting for a toddler, but he loved it, took to it, and his unusual early education enabled him to start writing books at age 12. It is certainly a convincing argument for home schooling.

Monday, June 22, 2009

June 22: Pliny Tells Ghost Stories (Vol. 9, pp. 311-314)

Here's a selection from Pliny's "Letters," but instead of philosophy, we get a story about a ghost who dragged his jangling chains around a house in Athens, scaring the heck out of the occupants. Odd choice.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

June 21: Would You Converse With Royalty? (Vol. 28, pp. 99-110)

Another plug for reading, this time by John Ruskin, another man whose work I'd not encountered until I discovered this series. He loses it at the end when he starts praising Milton, but his essential theme — reading makes one an educated human being — is undeniable.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

June 20: No Salt for These Birds (Vol. 29, pp. 403-413)

It's hard to balance the Darwin of "The Origin of Species" with the Darwin of "The Voyage of the Beagle," where today's selection is drawn. While "Origin" advanced scientific knowledge, "Beagle" is merely a chronicle of white dudes frolicking with among the savages. You could easily excise "Beagle" from this series, and no one would utter the slightest protest.

Friday, June 19, 2009

June 19: Freaks of the Dog Fad in England (Vol. 35, pp. 350-356)

Is there no element of the Elizabethian era that the editors of the Harvard Classics can't avoid including? Apparently not, judging by today's selection, "Our English Dogs" by Raphael Holinshed.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

June 18: Cinderella Lives Today (Vol. 17, pp. 98-104)

The original version of this story by the Grimm brothers, with more humiliation, more blood and more anger than the Disney-fied, sanitized version most are now familiar with. Great stuff!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

June 17: Risked His Scalp in Prayer (Vol. 43, pp. 138-146)

John Elliot, another white man trying to hustle the Indians during the bloody King Phillip's War, held a prayer meeting this day in 1670 with a neighborhood tribe and tells the story in his "Brief Narrative."

From a distance of three centuries, it is amazing how presumptuous the English were — that the native peoples whose land they invaded were heathens that needed to be Christianized. How many had to die because of this nonsense?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

June 16: Spirits at the Top of the World (Vol. 18, pp. 415-428)

Lord Byron's "Manfred" was published this day in 1817, so we get the second scene from this dramatic poem. More fantasy and hallucinatory nonsense.

Monday, June 15, 2009

June 15: Strikers Storm the Tower of London (Vol. 35, pp. 60-72)

On this day in 1381, a rebellion against the King of England, led by a man named Wat Tyler, was put down — but not before Tyler's ragtag rebels laid siege to the Tower of London, killed several of the King's ministers and generally terrorized the ruling monarchy. The details are in Jean Froissart's "Chronicles," a history of the Hundred Year's War between France and Britain in the 14th and 15th centuries.

Wat Tyler's Rebellion is portrayed by Froissart as a bad thing. Today, Tyler and his rebels would probably be called "premature anti-monarchists."

Sunday, June 14, 2009

June 14: A Philosopher Prefers Prison Cell (Vol. 2, pp. 31-43)

Socrates and Crito are sitting around talking in this passage from Plato's "Crito." Socrates was presented with the opportunity to escape his death row cell, but refused. He insisted on dying with the integrity he lived by, even though he was sentenced to die on false pretenses. The man definitely had some big stones.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

June 13: Athens Flouts Aristides (Vol. 12, pp. 85-94)

Athenians called Aristides "The Just." Of course, with a moniker like that, people are going to get tired of you after a while. Sure enough, they did and banished him from Athens for no other reason than just being tired of his presense. Plutarch tells the story today and it's great reading.

Friday, June 12, 2009

June 12: Vishnu Holds Up a Battle (Vol. 45, pp. 785-798)

It still seems rather astounding that a group of white Anglo-Saxton Protestants would include the Bhagavad-Gita in the Harvard Classics. But I guess they weren't so uptight that they could recognize merit in Hindu literature. That said, this selection of the first two chapters is still gibberish to me.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

June 11: He Sang of His Beautiful Elizabeth (Vol. 40, pp. 234-245)

The English poet Edmund Spenser married his beloved, Elizabeth Boyle, on this day in 1594, so we get a selection from "The Epithalamium," the poem he wrote to commemorate that happy day. It's windy and overwrought like most things Elizabethian (the Queen, that is, don't know much about Ms. Boyle).

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

June 10: Horrible Prophesy Fulfilled (Vol. 8, pp. 209-223)

The start of Sophocles' "Oedipus," the play about the man who "really loved his mother," as Tom Lehrer once sang.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

June 9: Enchanting Songs of David (Vol. 44, pp. 168-179)

We get the Book of Psalms today, starting with No. 23 and ending with No. 31. It's a brief sample of the beseeching and praying of David to his God.

Monday, June 8, 2009

June 8: Eloquence Wins Over Predjudice (Vol. 1, pp. 302-312)

On this day in 1772, John Woolman arrived in London to meet with that city's Quakers. He died of smallpox a few months afterward. This selection from Woolman's "Journal" shows the piety that makes his writing a bit hard to take, a common affliction of writers in this series.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

June 7: "There's Rosemary — that's for Rememberance!" (Vol. 46, pp. 176-183)

And the rest of Ophelia's words? "...pray, love, remember; and there is pansies, that’s for thoughts." Edwin Booth, a famed Shakespearean actor of the 19th century, died this day in 1893, which is why we get this selection from "Hamlet" today.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

June 6: A Shrill Cry in the Night! (Vol. 23, pp. 285-295)

Sailing around Cape Horn on a bleak midwinter night in 1836, R.H. Dana was standing watch. He heard a bloodcurdling scream pierce the air. What was it? It turned out to be a crewman having a nightmare. Just another sea tale from Dana's "Two Years Before The Mast."

Friday, June 5, 2009

June 5: The Rent of Land from Human Food (Vol. 10, pp. 149-157)

Adam Smith was born this day in 1723, but the editors pick a bland piece from "Wealth of Nations" to mark his birthday. It is an explanation about rent — how it is set, how it is paid and the balance between the two. Not the most gripping part of this book.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

June 4: 'Neath the Iron Hand of Spain (Vol. 19, pp. 253-259)

Count Egmont, the people's hero, was sentenced to death this day in 1658 when the Duke of Alva and the Spaniards put down an uprising. Goethe turned this episode into a play, "Egmont," which is today's selection. Not that interesting.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

June 3: Pulse Aids Epochal Discoveries (Vol. 38, pp. 75-86)

Dr. William Harvey died this day in 1657. Here, in his "Motion of the Heart and Blood," he deduced that arteries carry blood through the body. This is dry and scientific writing, but Harvey's discovery is exciting when you consider how little was known in the 17th century about how the body works.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

June 2: "Back to Nature" in the Seventeenth Century (Vol. 34, pp. 239-249)

Jean Jacques Rousseau was born this day in 1712, and today's selection from "A Savoyard Vicar," is characteristically deep as all of Rousseau's work is. Rousseau didn't care much for civilization and believe man thrived best in a natural state.

Monday, June 1, 2009

June 1: Thrilling Play by Tutor of Shakespeare (Vol. 19, pp. 241-250)

Christopher Marlowe, the man who taught Shakespeare how to write better plays, died this day in 1593. We get Marlowe's blank verse retelling of the Faust legend, "Dr. Faustus," and while the editors think it's thrilling, I think it's hallucinatory nonsense.