The Harvard Classics: Download All 51 Volumes as Free eBooks

in Books, Education, Literature | March 12th, 2014


Every revolutionary age produces its own kind of nostalgia. Faced with the enormous social and economic upheavals at the nineteenth century’s end, learned Victorians like Walter Pater, John Ruskin, and Matthew Arnold looked to High Church models and played the bishops of Western culture, with a monkish devotion to preserving and transmitting old texts and traditions and turning back to simpler ways of life. It was in 1909, the nadir of this milieu, before the advent of modernism and world war, that The Harvard Classics took shape. Compiled by Harvard’s president Charles W. Eliot and called at first Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf, the compendium of literature, philosophy, and the sciences, writes Adam Kirsch in Harvard Magazine, served as a “monument from a more humane and confident time” (or so its upper classes believed), and a “time capsule…. In 50 volumes.”

What does the massive collection preserve? For one thing, writes Kirsch, it’s “a record of what President Eliot’s America, and his Harvard, thought best in their own heritage.” Eliot’s intentions for his work differed somewhat from those of his English peers. Rather than simply curating for posterity “the best that has been thought and said” (in the words of Matthew Arnold), Eliot meant his anthology as a “portable university”—a pragmatic set of tools, to be sure, and also, of course, a product. He suggested that the full set of texts might be divided into a set of six courses on such conservative themes as “The History of Civilization” and “Religion and Philosophy,” and yet, writes Kirsch, “in a more profound sense, the lesson taught by the Harvard Classics is ‘Progress.’” “Eliot’s [1910] introduction expresses complete faith in the ‘intermittent and irregular progress from barbarism to civilization.’”

In its expert synergy of moral uplift and marketing, The Harvard Classics (find links to download them as free ebooks below) belong as much to Mark Twain’s bourgeois gilded age as to the pseudo-aristocratic age of Victoria—two sides of the same ocean, one might say. The idea for the collection didn’t initially come from Eliot, but from two editors at the publisher P.F. Collier, who intended “a commercial enterprise from the beginning” after reading a speech Eliot gave to a group of workers in which he “declared that a five-foot shelf of books could provide”

a good substitute for a liberal education in youth to anyone who would read them with devotion, even if he could spare but fifteen minutes a day for reading.

Collier asked Eliot to “pick the titles” and they would publish them as a series. The books appealed to the upwardly mobile and those hungry for knowledge and an education denied them, but the cost would still have been prohibitive to many. Over a hundred years, and several cultural-evolutionary steps later, and anyone with an internet connection can read all of the 51-volume set online. In a previous post, Dan Colman summarized the number of ways to get your hands on Charles W. Eliot’s anthology:

You can still buy an old set off of eBay for $399 [now $299.99]. But, just as easily, you can head to the Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg, which have centralized links to every text included in The Harvard Classics (Wealth of Nations, Origin of Species, Plutarch’s Lives, the list goes on below). Please note that the previous two links won’t give you access to the actual annotated Harvard Classics texts edited by Eliot himself. But if you want just that, you can always click here and get digital scans of the true Harvard Classics.

In addition to these options, Bartleby has digital texts of the entire collection of what they call “the most comprehensive and well-researched anthology of all time.” But wait, there’s more! Much more, in fact, since Eliot and his assistant William A. Neilson compiled an additional twenty volumes called the “Shelf of Fiction.” Read those twenty volumes—at fifteen minutes a day—starting with Henry Fielding and ending with Norwegian novelist Alexander Kielland at Bartleby.

What may strike modern readers of Eliot’s collection are precisely the “blind spots in Victorian notions of culture and progress” that it represents. For example, those three harbingers of doom for Victorian certitude—Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud—are nowhere to be seen. Omissions like this are quite telling, but, as Kirsch writes, we might not look at Eliot’s achievement as a relic of a naively optimistic age, but rather as “an inspiring testimony to his faith in the possibility of democratic education without the loss of high standards.” This was, and still remains, a noble ideal, if one that—like the utopian dreams of the Victorians—can sometimes seem frustratingly unattainable (or culturally imperialist). But the widespread availability of free online humanities certainly brings us closer than Eliot’s time could ever come.

You can find the Harvard Classics listed in our collection, 800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kindle & Other Devices.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

by | Make a Comment (45)

Comments (45)

  1. Daniel Parker says . . .
    March 12, 2014 / 5:39 am

    OpenCulture is excellent. Question on the Harvard Classics. Is there a download where I can get them all, or do I have to do it one by one? Thank you.

  2. Jimmy Anderson says . . .
    March 12, 2014 / 3:57 pm

    I agree with the other comment. Is there a way to get all 50 at once..? Title of the Article leads to that conclusion.

  3. Terry A. Davis says . . .
    March 13, 2014 / 11:39 am

    I have Origin of Species, Wealth of Nations, Huckleberry Finn, Don Quixote, the Bible, and some less good books I randomly choose from.

    God says…

    eing a necessary, every man is obliged to
    buy of the farmer a certain quantity of it; because, if he did not buy
    this quantity of the farmer, he would, it is presumed, buy it of some
    smuggler. The taxes upon both commodities are exorbitant. The temptation
    to smuggle, consequently, is to many people irresistible; while, at
    the same time, the rigour of the law, and the vigilance of the farmer’s
    officers, render the yielding to the temptation almost certainly
    ruinous. The smuggling of salt and tobacco

  4. Kaminariko says . . .
    March 14, 2014 / 11:15 am

    and the index (necessary since they’re untitled pdf’s)

  5. robpiso says . . .
    August 22, 2014 / 4:05 am

    Thanks for the index. (DjVu available also.)

  6. Open Culture says . . .
    August 19, 2014 / 3:09 pm

    Hi there,nnnI was just wondering if anyone could kindly tell me which Facebook page gave our post a mention today?nnnThanks in advance,nDan (editor)

  7. J.J. Staples says . . .
    August 19, 2014 / 3:16 pm

    I got it just now through Geoffrey Nimmo via Dangerous Minds.

  8. J.J. Staples says . . .
    August 19, 2014 / 3:22 pm

    I just looked again, and I was careless above: I got it separately both from Capt. Nimmo and Dangerous Minds. Nimmo brought it via American Mensa, as Sir Olf said.

  9. Sir Olf says . . .
    August 19, 2014 / 3:20 pm

    the Facebook page of American Mensa

  10. BFOliver says . . .
    August 19, 2014 / 4:06 pm

    I got it from G. D. Falkson’s page and saw it shared on the Steampunk page as well.

  11. David R Velasquez says . . .
    August 19, 2014 / 6:21 pm

    A friend…with a lot of friends.

  12. kate says . . .
    August 19, 2014 / 9:40 pm

    Peachblossom learning community homeschoolers

  13. Nancy Cook says . . .
    August 19, 2014 / 10:07 pm

    I saw it on Steampunk who shared G. D. Falksen’s photo.

  14. SR212787 says . . .
    August 20, 2014 / 5:39 am

    Steampunk shared G. D. Falksen’s photo..

  15. TB says . . .
    August 20, 2014 / 6:48 am

    I saw it via the American Mensa page.

  16. vrudloff says . . .
    August 20, 2014 / 9:04 am

    Pissed Off Women Over 55 and Friends of Pissed Off Women Over 55 shared G.D. Falksen’s photo

  17. SmokingReb says . . .
    August 22, 2014 / 4:40 pm

    Shared by Makers Faire NC

  18. ColleenPatriciaWilliams says . . .
    August 22, 2014 / 11:30 pm

    Friends. We share stuff like this. Love of literature and knowledge is not dead!

  19. Ganesh says . . .
    August 24, 2014 / 7:20 am

    Saw it in Hackernews

  20. Sir Olf says . . .
    August 19, 2014 / 3:14 pm

    Most probably the Facebook page of American Mensa.

  21. vanessa says . . .
    August 19, 2014 / 4:22 pm

    I got it from G.D. Falksen on Facebook

  22. vickie says . . .
    August 19, 2014 / 6:04 pm

    Dangerous mindsn

  23. Margarita Westbay says . . .
    August 20, 2014 / 3:18 am

    I saw it on the Write at Home page.

  24. Guest says . . .
    August 20, 2014 / 5:39 am

    Steampunk shared G. D. Falksen’s photo.

  25. Saeri Geller says . . .
    August 20, 2014 / 7:08 am

    This is a great list… But where are the women authors?

  26. Saeri Geller says . . .
    August 20, 2014 / 7:08 am

    This is a great list… But where are the women authors?

  27. Actual Democrocy says . . .
    August 20, 2014 / 8:27 am

    They didn’t een get to vote until 11 years after the selections were made. The Negro Slaves were freed 60 years before women were given the vote. Then they helped defeat the Equality for women Constitutional Amendment. I still don’t quite understand that.

  28. shakethemonkey says . . .
    August 21, 2014 / 5:32 pm

    You’ll have to take a time machine to 1909 to alter the selections.

  29. shakethemonkey says . . .
    August 21, 2014 / 5:32 pm

    You’ll have to take a time machine to 1909 to alter the selections.

  30. Tony Burton says . . .
    August 20, 2014 / 12:49 pm

    Actually, where is the link to the download?

  31. Phil Justphil says . . .
    August 22, 2014 / 7:06 am

    Sixth paragraph.

  32. Trisha Anderson says . . .
    August 27, 2014 / 12:55 pm

    Hello. Where is the link for the download?nThank you

  33. Trisha Anderson says . . .
    August 27, 2014 / 12:58 pm

    I think this is the link nn

  34. larrygoodell says . . .
    August 29, 2014 / 3:53 pm

    My great aunt gave me her Harvard Classics set back in the late 40’s and I still use it at least once a week, sometimes just pulling a volume out and reading . . . the set has survived several puppy chewing episodes (my dog just about destroyed Aesop’s Fables) . . . what a treasure to occasionally amplify your education through the years . . .

  35. Dan Colman says . . .
    November 5, 2014 / 5:59 pm

    Just out of curiosity, does anyone know who just gave our post a mention on Facebook?

    Dan (editor)

  36. Gia says . . .
    November 5, 2014 / 6:42 pm

    Mentioned in group participating in NaNoWriMo

  37. John says . . .
    November 11, 2014 / 11:21 am

    me! I also have a project for you. Thank you.

  38. Alec Rawls says . . .
    November 21, 2014 / 6:11 pm

    Not a single sentence from Karl Marx will bear the test of time. That is the appropriate standard for a classics collection, making Marx’s omission is entirely appropriate.

  39. omalone1 says . . .
    December 23, 2014 / 9:46 am

    Gwiz, western civilisation was saved by these monumental records

  40. JoHeNix says . . .
    December 25, 2014 / 5:47 pm

    Actually Karl Marx was quite correct in predicting that stock corporations would become major forces in the economy of the world.

    Personally, I prefer Groucho Marx: “I find television very educational. Whenever someone turns it on, I go in another room” (the library) “and open a good book.”

  41. Terry Edward Arnold says . . .
    December 28, 2014 / 5:06 am

    I want all your book’s free, please Thank you.

  42. Robert P Reid 3rd says . . .
    February 26, 2015 / 10:56 am

    Thank you and I look forward to coming back here in the future!!!!1

  43. samnang_teab says . . .
    March 14, 2015 / 7:47 pm

    I have an aim to study in Harvard university but i can not because i don’t have enough resource to study. in the future if i have a chance i will try.

  44. sumantra dam says . . .
    July 1, 2015 / 11:34 am

    i am in serious need of 50 volumes of karl marx,,,, please help

  45. Disha Doshi says . . .
    November 1, 2015 / 5:11 am

    Hey I have some good ebooks. I want to share them here. How can I do that?

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