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"The Five-Foot Shelf" -- 2

Posted by David Mehegan  September 26, 2006 12:07 PM

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From the introduction to the "Harvard Classics: The Five-Foot Shelf of Books," 1909 edition: "This book was prepared and is sent to you with one purpose in view, to enable you to profit in full measure from the writings of the immortals whom you have at your beck and call in the Harvard Classics. The great company of the wisest, the wittiest, the most interesting minds of all ages and every land will afford you entertainment in endless variety, inspiration and stimulation of mind. They will carry you forward upon that road to the high goal toward which all of us are making our way...."

About six months ago, my brother telephoned: "Do you want the Five-Foot Shelf?" I said, "If you don't want it, I'll take it." A few days later, several cardboard boxes sat outside my back door when I arrived home from work. Inside were my grandfather's "Five-Foot Shelf," 50 volumes, bound in red, with the Harvard shield on the cover of each. Two volumes have lost their front covers: Grimm's Fairy Tales, and the Index. Inside the index is a pasted note in my mother's handwriting: "This is the set of the Harvard Classics beloved by my father, John J. Humphreys."

Born in 1875, my grandfather, John Humphreys, had a grammar school education, like most children of Irish parents. His brothers became Boston firefighters (one died in the line of duty). But he was bookish and craved learning. He was apprenticed as an upholsterer, but hated the work and managed to get a clerical job with the city before he and my grandmother were married in 1906.

In 1909, he enrolled in Northeastern University law school, founded in 1898 as "The Department of Law of the Boston YMCA." It was still in the Huntington Avenue Y. In her 1980 memoir, my mother writes that he went to school five nights a week for six years, and had to include in his studies the completion of high school. He was admitted to the Massachusetts bar Feb. 23, 1915. Around the time he began his studies, he bought for himself the "Five-Foot Shelf."

More to come on this.

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