When Charles William Eliot assembled The Harvard Classics—more commonly known as The Five-Foot Shelf and later the Shelf of Fiction—he gathered this epic collection of key works which he thought would best represent “the progress of man… from the earliest historical times to the close of the nineteenth century.” God reveals himself through history and literature—through the thoughts of philosophers, the characters of great fiction, and the cadences of poetic verse. These classics are vital tools for study and ministry, because they cultivate the life of the mind and reveal the intricacies of human nature.
The Harvard Classics provided the general reader with a great storehouse of standard works in all the main departments of intellectual activity. To this storehouse the Lectures now open the door. Through the Lectures the student is introduced to a vast range of topics, under the guidance of distinguished professors. The Five-Foot Shelf, with its introductions, notes, guides to reading, and exhaustive indexes, may claim to constitute a reading course unparalleled in comprehensiveness and authority.
—William Allan Nelson, Editor-in-Chief, Webster's New International Dictionary, 1934
The Lecture Series on the contents of The Harvard Classics ought to do much to open that collection of literary materials to many ambitious young men and women whose education was cut short by the necessity of contributing in early life to the family earnings, or of supporting themselves...It will certainly promote the accomplishment of the educational object I had in mind when I made the collection.
—Charles W. Eliot, President, Harvard University, 1869