Christopher R. Beha
The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About, Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everything Else
New York: Grove Press, 2009.
When Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins released their Great Books of the Western World, Alex Beam reports, Adler boasted that the set measured 62 inches, two inches more than the five-foot shelf of The Harvard Classics. Really? When I think of the myriad ways in which to artificially and arbitrarily ensure that mine is bigger than yours, I have to laugh. Of all things on which to base a comparison of sets of great books!
Interestingly, his boast foreshadows the rather masculine form of stunt journalism, reading through these sets of books in a set period of time. (Is that fair? To call it masculine? There’s Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia, and Robyn Okrant’s Living Oprah. But conquering sets of books seems to be male terrain. There is Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21, 730 Pages by Ammon Shea. Then there’s The Know-It-All, A. J. Jacobs’s book about his reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, and his Year of Living Biblically, about, you guessed it, living by the 800 or more rules in that book.)
David Denby did the great books project well, by going back to school rather than simply holing up with a great pile of books. By being part of a community of readers, his re-reading of the classics has a wonderful dynamism and depth. His book also predates the other examples of stunt journalism I mention above, and it has a leisurely feel to it that distinguishes it from the other races to read/do/write.
Christopher Beha, by contrast, reads his way through the whole five feet of the Harvard Classics over the course of one year, but alone and as a direct consequence of feeling adrift in his life after moving back into his parents’ apartment. In one of my favourite passages, he describes his boomerang angst:
Of course, as a necessary condition of our post-belated age, one can never merely feel adrift or turned against oneself. One must also hold certain awkward feelings about these feelings. One must recognize such malaise as banal and used up, as a kind of American consumer indulgence. One must stand detached even from one’s sense of detachment, alienated from one’s own alienation. (3)
Wonderful insight. We are so worldly that we no sooner have feelings than we dismiss them as clichéd. Nothing can be felt as new, as insight, but as always already yesterday’s news.
Perhaps that is the appeal to immersing oneself in a set of the classics for a year.
The set of Harvard Classics appeared in 1909, and they were edited by Charles William Eliot, president of Harvard for four decades spanning the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of World War I. He wrote, “It is my belief that the faithful and considerate reading of these books … will give any man the essentials of a liberal education, even if he can devote to them but fifteen minutes a day.” The idea was to democratize higher education at a time when only 3% of the adult population finished undergraduate education.
Beha’s grandmother owned a set, and he remembers investigating their contents, tentatively, as a child and young man. Unlike the Great Books of the Western World, the canon established by Eliot was never revised. This was a one-time-only offer of what constituted the great, and his grandmother seems to have taken that on faith. When he tells his mother and aunt about his plan to read them, he is thrilled to hear their stories about their mother’s discussions of individual books from the set. The books were not just decoration, and Beha knows that his own reading of them is not simply about acquiring knowledge, rather, “I had started reading them with the idea that they might bring me closer to her. Perhaps this is the knowledge we are always after, though it’s destined to remain out of reach: the knowledge of those we have lost.” (120) Indeed, much of the narrative is given over to his discussion of his relationships with parents, siblings, grandparents and aunts, and they make charming secondary characters.
Unlike the Great Books of the Western World, Eliot’s set of classical texts is not ordered chronologically. After working his way through the first several volumes, which appear to him to have been ordered randomly, Beha has a revelation:
All the knowledge I might gain from reading these books, Socrates seemed to be telling me, would be worth little beside the knowledge of how little I still knew. … The earliest parts of the Harvard Classics were trying to turn me into the person I needed to be in order to read whatever came next. (30, 33)
I am particularly fond of this trick: let the book tell you how to read it, let the book define you as its reader. I performed this trick in many graduate school papers, and with considerable success with Britomart and The Faerie Queene.
But, and by my use of the word trick you may have guessed where I’m going with this, it is a trick, and its novelty does wear off. Beha did not capture and keep my attention in the same way that Denby did, and again, I have to put it down to too limited a canvas. Beha devotes very little space to discussing the actual works he reads, and it is a lack that weakens the book. Denby goes back to the classics because he knows that these books have formed him but he no longer remembers why. He wants to steep himself in the books again. Beha’s pace is much faster, and more shallow as a result. By the end of his book, we know that Denby has worked the classics back into the fabric of his life. Beha, on the other hand, has been on holiday from his life:
It must seem an odd thing for one to “realize” about books at such a late stage in the game. But somewhere in my months of checking titles off a list I had forgotten the simple fact that great books were meant to be reread. In many ways, this is precisely what makes them great. It felt invigorating to be reminded of this truth, to be reminded that I could live with these books for as long as I wanted, that I never had to return to the cultural landscape I’d left behind for the most of this year.
But a certain sadness came with this realization. After all, one wants to go home. (216)
Home is a world where no one else reads Wordsworth, whose “Tintern Abbey” inspired the insight. Home is where no one else partakes of the Great Conversation, and because Beha does not want to be a “scold” and prescribe a course of the canon to his contemporaries, his reading of the classics is cast as, well, a stunt, an exercise with a limited shelf life. It can be bracketed off and left behind. I prefer Denby’s model of excavating, re-inhabiting and reviving books that can continue to live in us, to enrich our lives.