I recently discovered Christopher Beha's marvelous The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everthing Else. His book is a beautiful example of personal memoir informed by the reading of classic books. Beha does not set out to guide us in our own reading of specific texts (as do such authors as Fadiman and Murnighan). He does not even talk in great detail about many of the books he reads. But he gives us a gentle and moving story of the way great literature can help us grow and confront the real circumstances of our lives.
Beha challenges himself to read his way through all of the Harvard Classics in the course of one year. Throughout his life, Beha had looked at the matching books on his family's shelves, occasionally reading the introductory material or skimming through a book here or there. Originally published in 1909, the books were published to allow working class people who could not afford to attend college an opportunity to receive a comprehensive liberal education. Although Beha attended elite private schools and an Ivy League university, he had not actually read many of the texts that lay before him. And so he sets out to work his way through the volumes, in order with no skimming. (Interestingly, the books do not seem to be arranged in any logical order--beginning with Benjamin Franklin, moving through Plato and Milton to Emerson then back to Aeschylus and Sophocles, etc.)
As Beha writes near the end of his book, The Whole Five Feet is not the story he was intending to write when he first set out. "The book I intended to write was essentially a comedy, about a feckless, somewhat lost young man who shuts himself away from the modern world and its cultural white noise," he writes, "in order to immerse himself in classic literature." He had imagined that "the young man might learn a few easy lessons, and we could all share some laughs along the way."
Fortunately, "the story line [of his life] didn't cooperate." Instead, Beha found himself living through "a loss that couldn't be assimilated into a comedy" (discussed in thoughtful detail throughout the book) as well as a minor event in his own life that echoed a previous serious one. The experiences of his year were not easy ones for him, but they led to a much deeper book which resonates with wisdom. There is not an ounce of petty or snarky thinking in this book.
What I like best about this book is Beha's absolute refusal to draw simplistic answers from the books he read. Instead of pat answers to the dilemmas he was facing, the author is led to complex and thoughtful questions. The literature comes alive, rather than being stuffed into little moralistic doses to be administered only as necessary. The classic books are no cure--in fact, “all the knowledge in the world is small recompense for the things we can’t possibly know.” But wonderful books open our minds to new worlds, new possibilities, new perspectives, and new ways of understanding.