These Books are Big: Some Thoughts on the Set

I want to take a little time out here to talk about the set and actual books in the Great Books of the Western World. In my set there are 52 volumes and each one is about 9 and ½ inches tall and 6 and ½ inches wide. Their thickness varies, based on the work. You can see from the photo at the top, that they look good on a shelf. The volumes are even color-coded. Yellow volumes has poetry and novels, blue books contain histories and “works in ethics, economics, politics, and jurisprudence” in the words of the editors, green volumes are natural sciences, and red books are philosophy and theology.  (To be fair, my set, being from the 1950s, as near as I can tell, is a little faded.)

 Given the fact that I am reading the set, I think it is obvious that I like it. All the same, I think that the individual books can be a little unwieldy to take on a train or a bus to read on a commute for example. Perhaps the subject matter is a little too weighty for casual commute reading anyway.

When I think about the age of the set, I have the image of the 1950s dad coming home, having dinner, talking to the kids about school, and then retreating to his study to read after the kids are in bed. Maybe with a highball. While this is kind of a fanciful notion, I kind of wish I had a study to retreat to, and that I made the time to read more consistently. This is more of an issue of managing all the inputs and distractions of daily life. While it can be done, I have often found much of my best reading was done on the bus or the train, commuting to and from work. It was a time when I could sit and read rather than be caught up in a phone call, taking care of chores, or one of a million other things.

This is why I think about the design of the books. I wonder how much influence the design has on whether or not the books get read. The set should not just be an attractive shelf piece. Does it matter that the books are 9 and ½ inches tall, color coded and with two-column text pages, versus, say, the Harvard Great Books set, which tend to be smaller in the editions I’ve seen.

 As an aside, the Harvard Great Books, which I plan to tackle some day, were created by Charles Eliot, a president of Harvard University, after P.F. Collier & Sons Publishers challenged him to make good on his assertion that he could design a set of books that would educate people who were willing to read for 15 minutes a day. You can read about the set, and one man’s attempt to read them at

 On some level, I think that the design of the books just takes some getting used to, and I think I am getting used to them as I go along. On another, though, I wonder about the importance of the design in getting these books read. I think that reading them is incredibly valuable. I have recently had discussions about real life problems that have been based on my most recent reading of Aristotle. So, I think that these books can really change peoples’ lives for the better. Anything that contributes to that is worth considering.  (I have also been asked to post more of the reading lists from the set to give an idea of the what the next nine years of reading would look like and will do so in the near future.)

 Next Time: Aristotle’s Politics – What Living With Other People Leads To.


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