It would be pleasant indeed to gather the characters of this book together and listen to the conversation of wholly different but interested couples—for this is a book of contrasts and has been written as such. Lives of the most dramatic and adventurous quality have been gathered from all corners of the earth, and from every age in history, in such a way that they may cover the widest possible variety of human experience.
The publishers believe that such a book would not be complete without some characters that are no less real because they have lived only in the minds of men. No explanation is needed for semi-historical characters like King Arthur, Robin Hood and William Tell, while Don Quixote, the Prince of Madness, and Rip Van Winkle, the Prince of Laziness, have been included, not because they were essentially heroic in themselves (although Don Quixote might well have claimed the laurel) but because they became heroes in the opinion of others through the very qualities that brought about their downfall. As involuntary heroes, they furnish a pleasant contrast to the more serious, actual and transcendental figures of saints, martyrs, warriors, discoverers and statesmen with which these pages are filled; they enrich the "Treasury," widen its range of colors and perform the necessary function of court jesters in the Hall of Fame. (Summary From the Preface)