Tuesday, January 22, 2013

what I am reading: the harvard classics and the autobiography of benjamin franklin

When I came across the Harvard Classics collection while browsing around the internet, I was intrigued.  This collection is a compilation of books and essays, gathered by Harvard president Dr Charles Eliot in 1909. He stated one can achieve a liberal education by reading through these books (which famously can fit on a 5 foot shelf).  As all the books are available for free kindle download from project Gutenburg, I decided to amuse myself by working my way through the set. 

The first book on the list is the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, so that is where I started (though there is no set order; I think I might group books together by time period for my own sake).  I had never read this, and really only knew the basics about Mr Franklin:  he was a big figure in colonial America, he did something with electricity and a kite, and there is a fabulous science museum in Philadelphia named after him.  Though his autobiography is a rather fascinating look at the life of a person in the 1700's in colonial America, I wondered when reading why it is included in this collection.  Most of what I would think of as the important parts of his life, such as his experiments with electricity or his contributions to the Declaration of Independence and time as the president of Pennsylvania, are not included.  I realized that perhaps Franklin's autobiography is the first book in the first volume of this collection because Franklin, incredibly, was almost entirely self-educated.  He had two years of formal education from ages 10-12.  The rest of his impressive abilities in writing, thinking, and languages (he read latin, french, italian, and spanish) came from reading.  He taught himself to write properly by reading famous poems and essays, and then rewriting them in his own words.  He learned debate skills from the Greeks.  And throughout his life, he sought knowledge by forming groups of like-minded people who spent time discussing, debating, and encouraging each others interests. 

Benjamin Franklin was lucky for his time, because he grew up in the printing industry and later became a printer, thus having access to many books.  We have such a rich resource in the internet, and really it is only laziness that keeps me from reading more classics rather then poplar fiction.  I'll take Franklin's story as inspiration to try and improve myself a little.  Anyone else want to tag along? Next up for me is John Woodman's Journal.

1 comment:

  1. Oh wow, I don't think I've ever heard of the Harvard Classics before. I just took a look at that list and there's some solid stuff on there. Going to see if I can get some of those titles via interlibrary loan.


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