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The Five-Foot Shelf -- 3

Posted by David Mehegan  October 4, 2006 11:02 AM

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"The Five-Foot Shelf of Books free you from the limitations of your age, of your country, of your personal experiences," wrote Harvard President Charles William Eliot in his introduction to the Harvard Classics in 1910. "They take you out of the rut of life in the town you live in and make you a citizen of the world. ... They offer you education, the means of making your life what you want it to be."

Though Eliot, editor of the 50-volume series, was a Harvard don, and the Harvard Board of Overseers agreed to lend the university's name and emblem to the books, the "Five-Foot Shelf" was actually a commercial project, conceived by publisher P.F. Collier. According to Adam Kirsch's excellent article in the November-December 2001 Harvard magazine, 350,000 sets were sold in the first 20 years.

Eliot believed that one need only read 15 minutes a day to imbibe the great learning of the world. My mother wrote in her 1980 memoir that her father, John Humphreys, once told her that he had read every book in his set, about 23,000 pages. As I looked recently through the old books in my kitchen, I noticed that the top of each spine was tattered by a thumb repeatedly pulling it off a bookcase.

John Jeremiah Humphreys.jpg

John Humphreys in 1896, age 21

To be "free from ... limitations" is what Grandad wanted. His father was a tailor from Dungarvan with a drinking problem. Graduating from Northeastern (night) Law School in 1914, he thought the future was promising. He was 39, with a wife and three children (another came in 1917). After he passed the bar, he did not join a law firm or hang out a shingle. He rented a desk at 53 State St., in a room with a lot of other individual practitioners.

As it turned out, he never could make a living as a lawyer. He could not bring himself to bill friends or neighbors who came to him for help, which drove my grandmother crazy. Also, he was upright, truthful, reflective, beset by the ability to see all sides of a question. Once he was so bothered by a case he had taken -- presumably he thought his client was in the wrong -- that he went to talk to the priest about it, at St. Joseph's in the West End. The priest said, "John, with that fine conscience of yours, you'll never make a lawyer." My grandmother was furious when she heard it, suspecting, perhaps rightly, that this message might hurt Grandad's self-confidence. More to come....

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