Call Me Ishmael

Slowly (so very, very slowly) I’ve been reading my way through the classics of Western civilization. I purchased a couple of book collections to that end a few years ago. One is the Great Books of the Western World, published by Encyclopedia Britannica (bought on eBay for roughly 1/6th the retail price) and another is called the Five Foot Shelf of Knowledge, or officially, the Harvard Classics. This set is one that Charles Eliot, then-president of Harvard University, put together in 1909. The premise was that by reading for 15 minutes a day from the collection, anyone could obtain a thorough liberal arts education.

2011 fancy leather version: $70 per volume. 1909 first-edition: $40 per foot on eBay.

Every now and then my five-foot shelf of knowledge will catch my eye. It actually takes exactly five feet, by the way. Ambrose, my incredible library carpenter, made each shelf 30 inches wide, and the 50 volumes take two shelves. (There’s an extra volume, an index, that moves to a third shelf, but I don’t think that one counts.)

One book called to me today, and I’ll quote from the introduction:

The merit of [this book] was recognized in both America and England immediately after its appearance, and it at once took rank as the most vivid and accurate picture in literature of the side of life it sought to portray. W. Clark Russell, himself one of the best writers of sea-stories in English, called it “the greatest sea-book that was ever written in any language,” and the convincing detail of its narrative led to comparisons with the masterpiece of Defoe.

It’s the greatest sea-book written in any language. And it’s called Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana.

Wait, what?

If you’ve never heard of this book, you may count me in your company. I only paused before it today because I’m reading Moby Dick with my online book club. Melville published Moby Dick in 1851. Dana published his fictionalized memoir in 1846. He was a Harvard College student who took a couple of years off from school to sail the wild seas before returning “the hero of his fellow students.” (I quote Pres. Eliot.) Even with the Harvard bias in place, it’s difficult to understand how Dana’s work found itself in the essential five feet some 63 years later but Melville’s did not.

No matter. I’m enjoying Moby Dick anyway. Here’s a quote that will appeal to many people I know:

Again, I always go to sea as a sailor, because they make a point of paying me for my trouble, whereas they never pay passengers a single penny that I ever heard of. On the contrary, passengers themselves must pay. And there is all the difference in the world between paying and being paid. The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that the two orchard thieves entailed upon us. But being paid, –what will compare with it? The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvelous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven. Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!

The two orchard thieves would be Adam and Eve. This is good stuff.

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Categories: Brain Workouts

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1 reply

  1. Have about, oh… ten inches worth of the Harvard Classics. Charity bookstore here was selling used volumes for about $2 each; couldn’t beat that price, so I picked some up. Have a little science, a LOT of philosophy, and one with important American historical documents. Good stuff.

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