All the world’s knowledge under cover

My world has always been shaped by books. As a child, one of my favorite possessions was a set of encyclopedias. I loved reading about foreign lands, minerals, animal taxonomy and notable people in history. Even though I was not afforded the opportunity for much travel, these magical books took me places far beyond the confines of my little hometown.

While it is looked down upon by many in academia, I have written numerous encyclopedia entries. I had always wondered how encyclopedias come to be. Now I know — starving graduate students are commonly enlisted to write 2,000 words on topics like the birds of Madagascar, the Doppler Effect or Huey P. Long.

In my particular case, that meant entries on subjects as varied as the Bertillon System (a precursor to modern biometrics), Radical Theories of Crime, and Drug Control Policy Under the Herbert Hoover Administration. Once in a while, I still do one as a kind of writing exercise — Tell me in 1,500 words everything I need to know about “Topic X.”

By extension, I have come to love other compendia of the arcane. My most favorite of these is the Harvard Classics. First published in 1909 and informally known as Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf, the 51-volume anthology of classic works from world literature were compiled and edited by Harvard University president Charles W. Eliot.

Eliot maintained that if one read just 15 minutes a day from the set, it would constitute “a good substitute for a liberal education to anyone who would read them with devotion.”

Eliot, president of one of the world’s most elite and excluding institutions nonetheless produced a work designed to elevate even the most common among us. As he states in the series introduction, “The purpose of The Harvard Classics is, therefore, one very different from that of the many collections in which the editor’s aim has been to select the hundred or the fifty best books in the world; it is nothing less than the purpose to present so ample and characteristic a record of the stream of the world’s thought that the observant reader’s mind shall be enriched, refined, and fertilized by it.”

What makes these books now even more egalitarian, is their free availability online. Yes, free for the taking are the works of Milton, Darwin, Augustine and Emerson. Carlyle, Voltaire, Hemholtz, Faraday and Locke… all just a few clicks away.

My tastes, however, are a bit more luddite. There’s just something about holding a 100 year-old book that connects me more closely to the past. If anyone out there happens to have a spare edition of the multi-colored, engraved, “historic bindings” that you need to unload, you know where to find me.

My second most favorite collection of this type is World’s Famous Orations edited by Williams Jennings Bryan (also freely available online). In his introduction to the ten volume set (divided by age and geography) Bryan writes, “The age of oratory has not passed; nor will it pass. The press, instead of displacing the orator, has given him a larger audience and enabled him to do a more extended work. As long as there are human rights to be defended; as long as there are great interests to be guarded; as long as the welfare of nations is a matter for discussion, so long will public speaking have its place.”

As with the Harvard set, Bryan selected from the pantheon of oratory: Demosthenes; John Calvin; Thomas Erskine; Henry Clay; Lincoln; John Knox; Marat… One only need thumb through a few of these to really understand the smallness of the most recent presidential debate. Bryan’s historical orators built nations with their words. President Obama and Gov. Romney barely tamped clay into bricks.

Of course, great oratory, exemplary prose, incisive thought and sound logic did not simply die in 1909. There have been many signal moments in each realm over the course of the last century. Eliot and Bryan would likely concede as much. That said, in our current blood-lust for the “best one liner” or “zinger,” it is arguable that those moments are getting harder to find… much like that Harvard edition that I’ve been bird-dogging.

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Matthew Pate, a Pine Bluff native who holds a doctoral degree in criminal justice, is a senior research fellow with the Violence Research Group at the University at Albany. He may be contacted via