The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everything Else

The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everything Else

4.0 7
by Christopher Beha
     
 

In The Whole Five Feet, Christopher Beha turns to the great books for answers after undergoing a series of personal and family crises and learning that his grandmother had used the Harvard Classics to educate herself during the Great Depression. Inspired by her example, Beha vows to read the entire Five-Foot Shelf, one volume a week, over the course of the

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Overview

In The Whole Five Feet, Christopher Beha turns to the great books for answers after undergoing a series of personal and family crises and learning that his grandmother had used the Harvard Classics to educate herself during the Great Depression. Inspired by her example, Beha vows to read the entire Five-Foot Shelf, one volume a week, over the course of the next year. As he passes from St. Augustine’s Confessions to Don Quixote, from Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast to essays by Cicero, Emerson, and Thoreau, he takes solace in the realization that many of the authors are grappling with the same questions he faces: What is the purpose of life? How do we live a good life? What can the wisdom of the past teach us about our own challenges? Beha’s chronicle is a smart, big-hearted, and inspirational mix of memoir and intellectual excursion—and a powerful testament to what great books can teach us about how to live our own lives.

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Editorial Reviews

Alexander Nazaryan
Beha�s cheerleading for the classics does have limits: "I can say with some confidence that my eyes passed over every word" is about as much rah-rah as he can summon for Darwin�s On the Origin of Species (Volume XI). Yet he approaches the classics without the apocalyptic vision of a culture warrior or the sort of popularizing sentiment that glibly reduces Aristotle to a self-help guru. The classics humble, as they ought to. Reflecting on the thousands of pages he has read in what might fairly be called an annus horribilis, Beha realizes that "all the knowledge in the world is small recompense for the things we can�t possibly know."
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

At first glance, Beha's situation is enviable: the 27-year-old Princeton graduate quits his job and is welcomed back into his parents' Manhattan apartment, where he decides to dedicate himself to reading all 51 volumes of the Harvard Classics Library, a "five-foot shelf" of (mostly) Western literature from Plato to Darwin. If only it were that easy: he must come to terms with the death of a beloved aunt early in the year, then is himself afflicted with a torn meniscus and a serious case of Lyme disease. With so much personal drama, the classics frequently take a back seat, and several volumes go completely unremarked. Beha spends the most time on those books that spoke most keenly to his personal circumstances; not only does he discuss John Stuart Mill's existential crisis at length, for example, he compares his own reaction to reading Wordsworth to the philosopher's. The broader conclusions Beha (now an assistant editor at Harper's) reaches about cultural values and the meaning of life are disappointingly pat; even the young memoirist concedes, "I haven't written the book I set out to write." (May)

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Library Journal

At the age of 27, Beha, assistant editor at Harper's magazine, was not having the best of times. Although he won a battle with cancer, other areas of his life were falling apart. In the midst of his difficulties, Beha set a goal to read all volumes of the Harvard Classics within one year. Also referred to as the "Five-Foot Shelf," the 22,000 pages of the 1909 collection were meant to provide the common man with an education. As Beha speeds through the volumes, details of his personal life are intermingled with his understanding of the texts. Time constraints permit little reflection on his readings. It is likely for this reason that Beha's own story becomes more interesting than his comments on the classics. He reads Shakespeare, Milton, Darwin, Locke, and countless others at a breakneck pace. Near the end, he questions if a slower and more meditative focus may have been a better strategy. He is probably right, but such an approach would not have produced this charming odyssey. Recommended for public libraries.
—Stacy Russo

Kirkus Reviews
Deciding to spend a year reading the entire 50-volume set of the Harvard Classics, Harper's assistant editor Beha discovers things-some touching, some banal-about the best-laid plans of mice and men. The author interlaces several stories in his debut. The main thread comprises even smaller ones-his reactions to the texts. He also tells about the Classics' editor, Charles W. Eliot, and the genesis and publication of the volumes, about his family and-most prominently-about his illnesses: Hodgkin's lymphoma (diagnosed while he was in college), Lyme disease, hives and a torn meniscus. A medical mess much of the time, Beha nonetheless persevered, reading while ill, while visiting relatives and while flying to England with family. (As he read a volume of Elizabethan drama, many of his fellow passengers watched Nicole Kidman in The Invasion.) There are moments of bizarre amusement-such as when the author, with his mother in the waiting room, makes a deposit in a sperm bank-and wrenching loss (the death of a favorite aunt). Beha is most effective when discussing the fragility of life, the certainty and uncertainties of death, and how the various writers he read dealt with it-or didn't. He is moved by Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," struggles through the two volumes by Darwin, ponders the problems of translation (so many of the originals were not in English), finds the grimness in Grimm, lingers overlong with Don Quixote, says very little about some texts, quotes favorite passages from others and finds himself changing as the year advances. He has a number of epiphanies-some rather ordinary: "life was teaching me about these books just as much as the books were teaching me about life." Finally, heresolves to remain a reader in the nonliterary contemporary American culture he comes close to condemning. The personal and family stories are almost always gripping; the comments about great books, less so. Agent: Sally Wofford-Girand/Brick House

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780802118844
Publisher:
Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date:
05/06/2009
Pages:
256
Product dimensions:
9.26(w) x 6.28(h) x 0.94(d)

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