|Fifty-one volumes: Harvard Classics|
It was known as Dr. Eliot's Five Foot Shelf, as Charles W. Eliot, then president of Harvard, was the unwitting instigator of the project claiming that, according to Wikipedia, "the elements of a good liberal education could be obtained by spending 15 minutes a day reading from a collection of books that could fit on a five-foot shelf."
There is everything here from autobiography to Greek drama to essays to fiction and poetry. A fine education indeed.
Today, one can actually access the writings online at Project Gutenberg (here) although that would not be quite as satisfying as sitting down with the actual books and browsing through them reading a bit here and there.
I also discovered that Christopher Beha wrote an account of a year spent reading all 51 volumes in The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everything Else (2009). It is now on my TBR list.
That project reminds me of the wonderfully funny book The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World by A.J. Jacobs about his year spent reading the Encyclopedia Britannica from A to Z.
I don't have the Harvard Classics but I feel as if someone, somewhere in my family did. I do have an incomplete set of Collier's Junior Classics: The Young Folks' Shelf of Books from 1912 that I will write about another time. Book One contains an introduction to the anthology by Dr. "Five-Foot Shelf" Eliot himself.
One can buy sets of the Harvard Classics online and I have seen them at used books stores. Or you might be lucky and find a set at a yard sale or estate sale. Or perhaps you already own your own Five Foot Shelf. If so, I would like to hear about it. How many of the volumes have you read?