To Be Frank, Part 1, “From the US Marines to the Harvard Classics”

To Be Frank, Part 1, “From the US Marines to the Harvard Classics” November 28, 2009

This blog has put me in touch with Catholics worldwide, many of them converts. One of these, a retired U.S. Marine named Frank, has become a regular correspondent of mine. Recently, I asked him to consider writing his own conversion story. He agreed to do so. Until further notice, I will post one installment each weekend. The series will be indexed under the topic 2BFrank.

Pinning on the Rocker..
Pinning on the Rocker..

On a spring day in 2005 in Southern California, I convinced my wife to move back to my hometown in Tennessee.  The arguments were: better schools, cleaner air, slower living, proximity to grandparents and relatives. It was a monumental sales job because my spouse, though born in Quezon City in the Philippines, is a California girl at heart.  Her family had arrived in Los Angeles after the Marcos regime’s imposition of martial law. The government shut down the radio station where her mom was a broadcaster, and the entire family miraculously obtained visas (mom, dad, and three children) and moved to Hollywood where my future spouse entered the sixth grade.

The idea of leaving California was not new to either of us. We were married when I had one year left on my enlistment in the Marine Corps. The plan was to get out of the Marines, go to college, become super-successful, and live happily ever after. But leaving California after college was always the plan. Fifteen years later (where did the time go?), Providence stepped in and kick-started this plan, and I’ll share more on that in another post. My wife, the cradle Catholic, and I, the non-denominational Christian, were ready to embark on the journey back to where I was born.

God provided the opportunity (military retirement entitles the service member to one final household move anywhere in the world), and my wife and I hammered out an agreement. She would move only if we kept our home in California. Being pretty good with numbers, I did some ciphering and agreed that this was doable. We went on a scouting expedition to my hometown, checked out the area schools (fed handy information from my mom, who now lives fifteen minutes away), and found a place that suited our purposes. Ah, life before the credit crunch!

We bought an older home that needed some updating, and who better to do the work than a recently retired, able-bodied Marine with a small pension, some rental income, and a lower cost of living? I tore into all sorts of projects—eventually. But first I read books. I read the entire Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian while working in the yard and unpacking. I always loved reading and I suddenly had some time to do it. Therefore, I did.

There is an annual “Friends of the Library” sale in our new hometown, and the promise of discovery was calling us like the sirens of Odysseus. The kids? They were in school! So off to the book sale we went. I found treasure there in a beautiful, complete set of the Harvard Classics: The Five-Foot Shelf of Books. Oh, the things I would learn!

I bought the set and put the books on the shelf, and there they sat. The O’Brian series still called to me, and I finished that off while the Classics gathered dust. Finally, I finished The Yellow Admiral, and in between projects I would look guiltily over at the bookshelf and the wealth of knowledge lying untouched in the HCFFSB. (Marines and acronyms go together like peas & carrots.)

There are fifty volumes in this set, which is purported to be “the most comprehensive and well-researched anthology of all time. Together they cover every major literary figure, philosopher, religion, folklore and historical subject through the twentieth century.” We are talking about every major work in the Canon of Western Thought, people! Stand at attention and salute!

Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography? Check! Plato’s Apology? Check! Emerson’s Poems and Essays? Check! Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations? It’s right there in Volume 10. The Aeneid of Virgil? All alone in Volume 13.  Everything from the plays of Sophocles to Darwins’ Origin of Species was now at my beck and call. Is this heaven???

According to Wikipedia, Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard University (in 1909) had stated in speeches that the elements of a liberal education could be obtained by spending fifteen minutes a day reading from a collection of books that could fit on a five-foot shelf. (Originally he had said a three-foot shelf.) The publisher P. F. Collier & Son saw an opportunity and challenged Eliot to make good on this statement by selecting an appropriate collection of works, and the Harvard Classics was the result. Who needs grad school?

The citation goes on to say that Eliot worked for one year with William A. Neilson, a professor of English; Eliot determined the works to be included, and Neilson selected the specific editions and wrote introductory notes. Each volume had 400-450 pages, and the included texts are “so far as possible, entire works or complete segments of the world’s written legacies.” The collection was widely advertised by Collier and Son, in Colliers magazine and elsewhere, with great success.

Oh, the things I would learn!

Next Saturday (12/5): How the Five-Foot Shelf led to Blaise Pascal and his Thoughts, Letters, and Minor Works: Harvard Classics, Volume 48

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