My friend, let’s call him Claude, who could build anything, had just finished building a beautiful bookcase. I found it interesting that this non-reader would spend so much time and energy building a home for books. “Now that I have the bookcase,” he said to me, “I need some books to put on it. Can you recommend some pretty books?” Not “good books,” but “pretty books.” After I got over my surprise, I started thinking about “pretty” books that would enhance his beautiful new bookcase, and even give visitors the idea that Claude was a well-read man. Two sets quickly came to mind – the Harvard Classics and the Great Books of the Western World. Unfortunately both sets were too expensive for him. Sadly, neither set is now readily available to Claude or anyone else except as used books.
The Harvard Classics set, compiled and edited by a former Harvard University president, Dr. Charles W. Eliot, was first published in 1909. Eliot added a 20 volume set of fiction called the Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction in 1917. The Harvard Classics set can be found in the public domain at an interesting website called Bartleby – named after the main character in Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby the Scrivener.” This site contains both the 51 volume Harvard Classics, and the 20 volume Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction.
Until recently the Great Books of the Western World set was available from Encyclopaedia Britannica for about $1,000, but has now been discontinued. The set, which was first published in 1952, originally contained 54 volumes, but was later expanded to 60 volumes in order to include works by 20th century authors. In the set you will find a sampling of works by most of the writers considered staples of the western canon. The idea for the set came from Robert Hutchins, then president of the University of Chicago, and philosopher and writer Mortimer J. Adler who served on the Board of Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica for many years, and was instrumental in the formation of the Aspen Institute, and the Great Books Foundation. A recent book entitled A Great Idea at the Time: the Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books by author Alex Beam tells the history of this marvelous set of books.
And as you may have heard the Encyclopaedia Britannica, first published in Edinburgh, Scotland between 1768 and 1771, has also recently ceased publication except in digital format.
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In an article somewhat related to the above, Philip Kennicott asks the question “As electronic readers gain popularity, what happens to the personal library?” His answer includes a funny story about going to a party in a beautiful home and finding a wonderful library that is obviously there for show only.
If you search the internet you can find many sites that offer guidance on the choosing and placement of books to decorate your home – bookcases, tables, etc. House Beautiful has even published a book entitled Decorating with Books. Also, I saw a segment on TV a while back about a company that buys overstocked books. The company sells lots of books to home decorators who are looking for books with cover colors that match the décor of rooms in their clients’ homes. You can even by “books by the foot.” Really.
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In her delightful book of essays entitled Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, Anne Fadiman (Clifton Fadiman’s daughter) tells this story: “Some friends of theirs had rented their house for several months to an interior decorator. When they returned, they discovered that their entire library had been reorganized by color and size. Shortly thereafter, the decorator met with a fatal automobile accident. I confess that when this story was told, everyone around the dinner table concurred that justice had been served.”