Beha, Christopher. The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everything Else (New York: Grove, 2009)
American bookshelves are awash in memoirs: many writers have chronicled their experiences (usually a year) inside radical Islam, in a mental institution, in Patagonia, and learning to play the French horn; others have gotten book deals for Living Oprah, Living Biblically, or Living Like Jesus; yet to arrive are memoirs about living under police protection, being in a women's prison, and homeschooling. When it comes to books about books, other writers have discussed reading Proust and consuming the entire 32-volume Encyclopædia Britannica, but in the book I'd like to look at today, Christopher Beha's The Whole Five Feet, the author relates his year-long efforts to read all 51 volumes of the Harvard Classics "Five-Foot Shelf" of books.
While explaining how Harvard's Dr Eliot came to midwife the set's publication, beginning with Franklin's Autobiography rather than Homer, Beha admits of his reading adventure that "the arbitrary beginning reminded me of the arbitrary nature of the project. Or, better to say, both projects--Eliot's effort to compile this set and my effort to read it." (p. 23) Time becomes a factor when he reads Virgil's Aeneid (volume 13) before Homer's Odyssey (volume 22); Beha writes that "In contrast [to Virgil], we know almost nothing about the composition of Virgil's Homeric models:"
Nor, for that matter, did Plato or Aeschylus, though they took those poems as their national epics. The poems seemed to have sprung from the ground. I suspect it would have been difficult for the Greeks to imagine a time when these epics didn't exist. They weren't just literature--they were history; they were religion and cosmology; they were ethics. They were in the air the Greeks breathed. (p. 80)
Drawing a parallel to today, Beha continues: "In our own time, the grand narratives we tell ourselves might be historical or national, but they are most often religious." This is true, but the general disdain for textual analysis and Biblical scholarship allows many believers to retain the comforting illusion that "The Bible" is a single cohesive and coherent work of divine inspiration rather than a conglomeration of writings that often disagree with each other. (In that respect, the two Judeo-Christian testaments are rather like Eliot's Five-Foot Shelf in microcosm.)
Part of the pleasure of reading a meta-book like Beha's are the little gems he shares with his readers after unearthing them. These words from Goethe's Faust will, perhaps, one day grace the walls of my dream library along with this painting:
"I have, alas! Philosophy,
Medicine, Jurisprudence too,
And to my cost Theology,
With ardent labour, studied through.
And here I stand, with all my lore,
Poor fool, no wiser than before."
(p. 119, Goethe, Faust)
Against the background of the death of his Aunt Mimi and his own health problems, Beha soldiers on through the Shelf; he writes that "It is a cliché to talk about reading as a journey, but it would be difficult to overstate how much easier my confinement became once I could read again:"
Throughout the year, I'd attempted to balance the Harvard Classics with the rest of my life. The two sides of the scale informed each other in surprising ways. Like Darwin, I felt that everything I read was made to bear on everything I saw. But now reading these books very nearly was my life. For weeks, I did almost nothing else. (p. 176)
Immersed in both the classic and contemporary worlds, Beha writes about the intriguing feeling of "being initiated into the mysteries of a kind of fraternity:"
I couldn't even tell people the slightly less pretentious truth that I was learning more about how to be in the world that I was any particular facts or figures. Part of the nature of the "internal cultivation" that Eliot and his precursors held dear is that it doesn't display itself to others. It isn't a status symbol, and it won't change your social standing. Because it is a process rather than a final outcome, it can't even really be explained. (p. 197)
Beha does a good job throughout, explicating the seemingly inexplicable with only the occasional minor stumble. One such oversight is his comment about how "the atheist Jefferson made his own version of the Gospels, cutting out all the miracles, omitting any hint of the supernatural, and leaving only the teachings of Jesus." (p. 217) Jefferson did indeed edit the gospels to remove what he saw as Platonic "corruptions," but he remained a Christian. His letter to Benjamin Rush (21 April 1803) explains his position in a fairly succinct manner: "I am a Christian, in the only sense in which [Jesus] wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other." That Jefferson's sensible and deeply considered Christianity is no longer recognized as such by most moderns is a great loss.
At the conclusion of his journey, Beha considers the Shelf's selections and their order, writing that he "wouldn't change a thing:"
Now that I've read all 22,000 pages of the Classics--the whole five feet of the Five-Foot Shelf--I wouldn't wish away its eccentricities, its particular emphases and lacunae. Of course it's an incomplete picture, but it isn't final; it isn't an end in itself. I can only hope that it sends me back to life, to possess the world more abundantly in myself. (pp. 236-237)
Beha's closing words are worth savoring:
I shall go on in the same way. Nothing in my life is going to change in any visible fashion. But these books have helped me to find meaning in events--illness and loss as well as moments of great joy--that didn't make any sense to me. At the same time, life helped me make sense of these books. And so it will continue to go, for although I have read though the whole five feet, I'll never be finished with them. (pp. 248-249)
I suppose that the next peak to scale for a year-long-reading-adventure memoir is the 60-volume Great Books of the Western World. If anyone is up to the challenge, I'll likely be interested in reading about it--and if that someone is Christopher Beha, so much the better.
Jesse Berrett writes in the San Francisco Chronicle that "for the most part Beha builds an intensely felt, intensely human engagement with these works."
Alexander Nazaryan's piece in the NYT Sunday Book Review calls Beha's book "an unexpected narrative that deftly reconciles lofty thoughts with earthly pain:"
...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.
Beha wrote a brief explanation at his "Whole Five Feet" blog
The contents of both the Harvard Classics and the HC Shelf of Fiction are available at Bartleby.com
Adam Kirsch's "The Five-Foot Shelf Reconsidered" (Harvard Magazine) mentioned a few of the Shelf's more notorious omissions: Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, Hegel, Marx, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Freud. Kirsch also wrote that "Eliot prefers autobiography to speculation:"
It is not clear whether this reflects the editor's own disbelief in the value of metaphysics, epistemology, and theology, or simply a doubt in the capacity of the reader to understand such subjects.