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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.”

In his introduction to The Harvard Classics, Eliot likens the collection to a portable university. He does not intend it to resemble a museum display-case of the world’s best books. The volumes are not numbered in any particular order, although Eliot suggested that they be approached as a set of six courses:

• The History of Civilization

• Religion and Philosophy

• Education

• Science

• Politics

• Criticism of Literature and the Fine Arts

This massive collection represents a cross section of the literary forces which effectively shaped our society. Universally regarded as one of the most comprehensive and well-researched anthologies of all time, these books cover every major literary figure, philosopher, religion, folklore and historical subject through the twentieth century. From “The Five-Foot Shelf” come the writings of Plato, John Milton, Plutarch, Augustine, Dante, More, Luther, Pasteur, Pascal, and others. Volume 51 contains 60 lectures, introducing and summarizing the fields of religion, history, poetry, natural science, philosophy, biography, prose fiction, criticism and the essay, education, political science, drama, voyages and travel. The “Shelf of Fiction” contributes the works of authors like Fielding, Dickens, Poe, Hugo, Tolstoy, Austen, and Dostoyevsky. In all, The Harvard Classics and Fiction Collection totals over 33,000 pages of the most notable writings of all time.

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.

Author Bios

Charles W. Eliot

Charles W. Eliot

Charles W. Eliot (1834–1926) was selected as Harvard’s president in 1869 and served for 40 years, the longest term as president in the university’s history. Eliot graduated from Harvard in 1853 and in 1958 was appointed to assistant professor of mathematics and chemistry.

Eliot left Harvard in 1863 and traveled Europe for nearly two years, studying the educational systems of the Old World. After returning home in 1865, Eliot accepted the position of professor of analytical chemistry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He published his ideas about reforming American higher education in a compelling two-part article in The Atlantic Monthly, the nation’s leading journal of opinion.

In 1869, Harvard had found itself in a crisis of short-term presidents and languishing curriculum, so it turned to Charles W. Eliot. Under his leadership, Harvard began to expand the range of courses offered, permitting undergraduates with unrestricted choice in selecting their courses of study. The university soon became a center for advanced scientific and technological research.

Eliot assembled The Harvard Classics, more commonly known as “The Five-Foot Shelf” and the “Shelf of Fiction,” as a way to gather a collection of works that would best represent “the progress of man.”

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John Bunyan

John Bunyan

John Bunyan (1628–1688) is one of the most prominent Puritans of all time. Bunyan was well known as a respected preacher during his lifetime and remembered through his writing to this day—namely The Pilgrim's Progress.

After joining the Bedford Baptist Church of Bedford, England, in 1654, Bunyan began preaching in nearby villages. He was prosecuted under an Elizabethan act against nonconformity and imprisoned for three months which was extended to twelve years. Bunyan became the pastor of St. John's Church the same month as his release from prison.

The author of more than 60 books, Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, Holy War, and his autobiographical book Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, gained a prominent and unique place in history. The Works of John Bunyan (3 vols.) includes 61 Bunyan-penned classics.

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