Seminal text of self-education in America, published in 1909, the set was occasioned by then-President of Harvard Charles w. Eliot's offhand remark that a full liberal arts degree could be simulated with only fifteen minutes of daily reading over a year from a shelf of books, from three to five feet long. Publisher P.F. Collier, sensing a bestseller in the making, asked him exactly which books he would include. The answer, arrived at over a year of trial and error, contained 51 books, including volumes of "Famous Prefaces", "Supplementary Lectures" and of course, a "Readers' Guide".
True to the publisher's intuition, the set was hungrily snapped up by an America eager for self-improvement, and complete sets are easy to find on eBay. In the digital world, the set is to be found on Bartleby and in Gutenberg.org, and there is even a for-pay subscription service that will email you your assignments over a year, claiming that with speedreading techniques and a little more time each day, the whole year's worth of readings can be condensed into 90 days of concentrated work. (I don't recommend it, however.)
As a complete education for the 21st century, it's a bit lacking: there is very little science, outside of two (count 'em, two!) large volumes by Charles Darwin, and some of the Famous Prefaces, which cover such worthies as Copernicus, Francis Bacon, Harvey, and Newton. There is exactly zero mathematics and/or physics. Philosophy is curtailed to a few Scotch rationalists, a couple of dialogues of Plato, Marcus Aurelius, and Saint Augustine's Confessions, and, because of space considerations, there is no 19th century fiction, and the literary choices are capricious at best: the complete Robert Burns, for instance,but only four plays from Shakespeare. (Appended note: Burns won out, according to the best sources, since the vocabulary was easier and he displayed a considerable range of style, from 'salon verse' to nursery rhymes. Also, students liked him.) Marx, Freud and Nietzsche are conspicuous by their absence. However, there is much to be recommended in taking the challenge, and doing daily readings.
The selections are not too difficult to read, although you're going to have to adjust to reading prose from about the last five centuries: the earliest selections are from about 1500 or so, which means that the grammar is going to be hard, but the vocabulary, concrete, descriptive, and easy, once you get used to footnotes. Round about 1650, the vocabulary gets all Latin/Greeky (but the grammar gets easier) and gets familiar again in the 19th century, so your mileage may vary. (A familiarity with classic Fantasy/SF helps a lot: if you can't quite adjust to the social milieu, just pretend they're aliens. Works like a charm.) They're, mostly, "friendly classics", so even if you don't feel yourself up to say, John Stuart Mill, you can still read some 18th century pastorals, and feel like you've done your job. Also, reading from these books will teach you, for want of a better word, the ideas that lie behind political correctness.
Namely, you don't have to agree with everyone, all the time. Yeah, you might find yourself deep in some old British Lord's memoirs and find that he just purchased the favors of some lusty wench, who may have gotten pregnant/syphilitic as a result. Yet, a page later, he talks about the equality of all mankind. What to think? Should I credit him for loving equality, or dismiss him for not realizing that the wench he just had a go at is not counted as an "equal"? Or both?
In Eliot's view, you are to set aside the wench, accept that without his interest in equality we would not be arguing for women's rights, and go on with our reading. I find this refreshing. Some might find the selections a little tipped towards dead white European males. Actually, the Harvard Classics are much more cosmopolitan than what a conservative American might choose these days: there's a (largely uncensored) Arabian Nights, and a volume of Sacred Texts that includes sections of the Koran, not to mention German literature, which goes a ways towards contradicting the "warlike imperialists" versus "peaceful indigenous peoples" stereotype prevalent in education these days. Also, one might argue that his volume of Epics and Lays is not really "the literature of privilege" considering that the Celtic and Germanic tribesmen who composed a good deal of the volume were hardly in the position to be privileged over anyone at the time, being at war with each other and having been oppressed by the Romans, were set to do some oppressing of their own.
Here again, I'll touch on what he includes in science: there are no textbooks on these subjects, as such. Science as science wasn't part of a liberal arts curriculum back then. Instead, we get the almost-forgotten notion of science as a specialist part of the humanities, where research was not only peer-reviewed, but had to pass muster in the salons, as well. The general consensus in his selections, even in Darwin, is that science and religion are more-or-less the same thing, what used to be called "natural philosophy". This is Science Militant, the triumph of Truth over Superstition, where the study of the Age of Rocks is only to glorify the Rock of Ages, a Radium Age, where the stupendous powers of the universe are only used for Good. An inspiring thought, but certainly not borne out by history!
I became a confirmed Harvard Classics reader during one of my intermittent stretches in the city Shelter System. To read, there are Bibles, and religious tracts (mostly from the Jehovah's Witnesses
), a skua-like pile of paperbacks, intermittently brought over by New Haven Reads, and often, but not reliably, newspapers. Many people can be seen clutching, though not reading, NIV Bibles and Our Daily Bread, a nondenominational devotional book.
This is for several reasons. First, most of the Shelters' food supply comes from churches, some of whom (illegally) send missionaries to try to convert the heathen (uh, comfort the spiritually afflicted...), and we try to bend over backwards to accommodate them. Second, a lot of the staff is evangelical Christian, and see nothing wrong in running the place as a theocracy. Third, a good number of people are or have been in trouble with the law because of substance abuse, and reading Bibles is a part of convincing the world that they're "spiritual".
In my case, I went from reading the King James Bible with the help of Day By Day, the Episcopalian devotional books, to free-reading Bible, to not reading much of anything in a couple of months, other than the Net. I felt dull and worn out, without much enthusiasm for, well, pretty much anything. (Several months of reading the military spats of small kingdoms of the Middle East can do that to you.)
My illumine came when I was not in the main shelter, but a small, privately run one, when I lucked upon volume 2 of a three-volume anthology, The Limits of Art: Villon to Gibbon, edited by Huntington Cairns. Opening it at random, I latched upon John Milton's l'Allegro.
It hit me like a small asteroid. I needed something that was not the Bible, but similarly Dense and Chewy. And I needed it on tap. For that summer, as often as I could, I stole into Gateway Library, and used the free one-copy printing service to print out "reading assignments", which I'd read at odd times during the day, and especially while hanging out in the Swamp.
The blank sides I used for drawing paper and to take notes. Mostly people left me alone, although I did get into a lively discussion over whether reading anything written by Charles Darwin was of any use whatsoever: considering the text for the day was a fairly straightforward one concerning the growth of coral reefs (which had little to do with evolution as such), I simply said I found him a stupendously interesting nature writer, and left it at that.
No matter how you feel about Darwin, I'd say give it a try.