It is certainly much sounder than the selection offered by
its long-established and still active competitor, Dr.
Eliot's celebrated Five-Foot Shelf, the Harvard Classics.
Half the authors on Dr. Adler's shelf (which also measures,
by chance or ineluctable destiny, five feet) appear on Dr.
Eliot's, but only eight are represented by the same works;
the rest appear in extracts or in shorter works, for if Dr.
Adler overdoes the complete text, Dr. Eliot goes to the
opposite extreme. Among the Great Books authors whose work
doesn't appear in the Classics at all (if one ignores a few
snippets) are Aristotle, Thucydides, Aquinas, Rabelais,
Spinoza, Gibbons, Hegel, Marx, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and
Freud. On the other hand, since Dr. Eliot went in for
variety above all, he did include, though often in
unsatisfactory snippets, many writers omitted by Dr. Adler.
No less than ten of his fifty volumes are anthologies, and
while this is overdoing it, surely the Great Books would
have been enriched by a few, such as one of English poetry
and one of political writing since the French Revolution.
Some of Dr. Eliot's choices are as eccentric as some of Dr.
Adler's (though Eliot produced nothing as fantastic as the
six volumes of scientific treatises): Robert Burns gets a
whole volume, Manzoni's I Promessi Sposi another, and Danass
Two Years Before the Mast a third. But in some ways the
Classics are a better buy. For one thing, they cost only
half as much. And for anothers there is an amateurish,
crotchety, comfortable atmosphere about them that is more
inviting than the ponderous professionalism of the Great
Books. Moreover, while Dr. Eliot is overfond of the brief
sample, the chief practical use of such collections may well
be as a grab bag of miscellaneous specimens, some of which
may catch the reader's fancy and lead him to further
explorations on his own. When I was a boy, I enjoyed
browsing in the family set of the Classics, but browsing in
the Great Books would be like browsing in Macy's book
Back to MacDonald's review.
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modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:42:14 EDT