Harvard Classics 28, 29 & 30

It has been awhile since I last did a post on the Harvard Classics, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy reading the past 7 weeks.

I continued my reading of essays from English and American sources, this time with a focus on 19th century writing. This second collection was inferior to the first, in my mind. That’s mostly because the second collection of essays was much more contemporary and hadn’t stood the test of time. The Harvard Classics were compiled closer in time to all of these writings than the Harvard Classics are to today. Some things just didn’t hold up well with age. The essay by Thoreau was interesting, but generally the Yankee Unitarian slant of the American authors kept them from feeling relevant. The English authors were repeating on themes that have been done better elsewhere, or are simply out of date. The essay on poetry by Edgar Allen Poe stood out from the endless stream of essays on poetry I’ve read because it made brevity a key aspect of the ability to define a whole poem, ie it should be digestible in a single sitting.

Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle is really more interesting for learning about various far flung lands than for the biology it contains. The book starts off slowly because it is so focused on the biological aspects of things. The problem is this kind of writing, describing strange critters to a popular audience, has been entirely overtaken by the nature documentary. A picture is worth a thousand words, and so Darwin’s long descriptions of the Amazon just aren’t all that interesting. The next area he goes, La Plata, is so like the California from Two Years Before the Mast, that it feels redundant. Fortunately, by the time Darwin gets to the Tierra del Feugo, there are new interesting socieities for him to describe, and he spends much less time going over the uninteresting flora and fauna of the area. They go up the coast through Chile before arriving in the Galapagos.

His description of the Galapagos Islands are the most culturally important bits as it was this visit that would lead Darwin to the theory of evolution. It is again very biologically focused, but it works much better this time than in the Amazon. They complete a circumnavigation by going to Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, Mauritus, and St. Helena. These all have distinct and interesting societies that are worth reading.

Finally, the last volume in this group was a collection of scientific lectures. This was certainly a tough volume to read, but thankfully a short one. The science that was included was at a mid-to-late 19th century layman’s level. Even though giants like Faraday and Helmholtz are giving the lectures, the material is very accessible. For someone like me, who has a STEM degree, accessible versions of Faraday is a step down from what I’m used to. I don’t think I learned anything genuinely new and useful from the lectures, but there are lots of good experiements and demonstrations described.

Some of the later papers describe the cutting edge of astronomical and geological science. These are interesting purely to see how far we’ve come, since both lectures pre-date the notion of multiple galaxies or plate tectonics. So while the content isn’t relevant anymore, they’re worth reading if you have an interest on the history of science.

So those three volumes are now mercifully finished, and it’s time to look forward to the final 20 volumes. Lucky for me, I’ve read the lecture series as I’ve gone along, so I only have 19 volumes to go. Since I’ve read 22 volumes in the past year, it looks like I’ll be finishing the Harvard Classics before too long. The next three volumes are: The Autobiography of Benventuo Cellini, the last single-work volume, followed by continental essays, and various travel writings. From there we have: the Enlightenment Part 1, Elizabethan literature, Renaissance/Reformation writings, and the Enlightenment part 2. Following those are important medical texts, prefaces and prologues, the gigantic set of English language poetry, American historical documents, religious writings from around the world, two volumes of Elizabethan drama, the works of Pascal, and finally, the Germanic sagas. It should be quite the ride.

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