June/July/Aug 2009

The Whole Five Feet

Philip Womack


One day, walking back to the office after a bibulous lunch, Christopher Beha sees Benjamin Franklin walking beside him:

“Eat not to dullness,” Franklin told me. “Drink not to elevation.”
“Shut up, Ben,” I answered.

Beha was not hallucinating but imagining: This was the first of many brushes with the past resulting from an experiment that was to inform his life for a whole year—and beyond. That is, a constant and continual dialogue with some of the greatest minds the world has known. A few days earlier, on New Year’s Eve of 2006, Beha, then twenty-seven, had eschewed the revelry of his peers and begun his attempt to read all the Harvard Classics—the “whole five feet” of his book’s title.

To read fifty-one volumes does not, in itself, seem like an impossible thing. It is, after all, slightly less than one a week. Charles William Eliot—the respectable, bespectacled Harvard president who, on retiring in 1909, instituted the series—believed that the ordinary reader would be able to garner much of use from a mere fifteen minutes’ perusal a day. Despite Beha’s ambivalence about the project (“How is your reading going?” someone asks him. “I’m not sure,” he answers), he perseveres, and “after only a few days, the once forbidding red volumes had become amiable companions.” He empathizes with Emerson, finds Cicero hard going, and feels affinity with Don Quixote. Beha reveals the key theme, of both his book and of the Harvard Classics, in concise, powerful prose: the transmission of knowledge from generation to generation. He discovers that his grandmother, a Christian Dior model in the ’40s and ’50s, educated herself from the same set he’s using, and he recalls that his grandfather could recite Longfellow. Beha, however, grew up quoting Caddyshack. We have lost the elegance and depth of expression that was second nature to our literate ancestors, he argues, and rightly, he mourns this.

With such a battery of knowledge at his disposal—although the Harvard Classics were somewhat arbitrarily put together, they do include Milton, Sophocles, and David Hume as well as scientific papers, historical documents, and Jacobean drama—Beha finds that he is able to face his own difficulties. For this book is also an elegant and honest memoir, about the death of his aunt Mimi from cancer and his own debilitating illnesses (manifold and life-threatening). His attempts at literary criticism, on the other hand, mostly fall flat: “Wordsworth’s conversational language isn’t just different from ours; it’s richer and more beautiful.” Such platitudes litter the text.

The Whole Five Feet is still a charming addition to the literature of books about books. Beha is a clear-sighted writer, who has accomplished exactly what Eliot would have wanted: He found repose and strength of mind in those who express things more elegantly than we, in our Twittering, blog-filled age, ever can.

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