I’m a sucker for books about books. Is that really a surprise? So when an advanced reading copy arrived in the mail called The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everything Else, I moved it up to the top of my to-be-read pile.
This reading memoir is coming out in May, and is written by Christopher Beha, an editor at Harper’s Magazine. Beha decided to read the Harvard Classics in its entirety in one year, and write about not just what he absorbs from the books, but how reading these classics impacts his life.
As he deals with losing a family member and recovering from an illness, Beha reflects on his massive undertaking and shares some jewels from the books.
On talking about Emerson:
“Each age,” he insists, must “write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding.” It’s not that older books are no longer valuable, but as they age–as they become “Classics”- we become too respectful of them; we stop seeing them for what they are: “Meek young men grow up in libraries believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books.”
At the time I read these words, it would have been possible for me to spend entire days without moving from that library, doing nothing but reading the books of an older period. And some days I did. But mostly I didn’t– not because I didn’t enjoy it there, but because reading someone like Emerson is bound to send you back out into the world.”
Beha successfully approaches the topic of reading to understand one’s place in the world, and he also talks about the necessity of reading with a foot in the past and the present.
I was still reading to some degree to acquire knowledge, and I was certainly still reading for pleasure. But I was also reading to be a part in a great chain of readers. Aurelius read Plato, then Aurelius died. Milton read Auerlius, then Milton died. And here I sat up in bed reading Milton, fighting off the time when sleep would overtake me. Such is everything.
I’m endlessly fascinated by how readers react to what they are reading; whether it’s a classic or a contemporary novel. I love to read about the process of the reader mulling the words over in their mind, and then applying it to their own lives. Beha’s book made me want to tackle the Harvard Classics myself someday. It made me realize how completely different the educational system is today. Most public school systems don’t have a lot of the classics on their required reading list. It’s a shame they don’t, because then usually only people who are liberal arts majors in college end up reading even some of the titles on the list.
As Patrick over at the Vromans blog relates, The New York Times recently reported on the problems with the economy making it an even tougher go for humanities programs. Let’s hope that humanities programs don’t disappear, and that more funding is out there to support these crucial studies.
For those of you who can’t afford to go back to school or just miss it, reading Christopher Beha’s book is like having a friendly, hip professor give you a syllabus with extended notes in the margins. It’s anecdotal and lit crit at the same time, and a fine introduction to some of the best books ever written.