The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everything Else
Christopher R. Beha
The only reason I read this book is because I was assured that it actually took the great books seriously, unlike some other tome-conquering tales I’ve read. The author initially intended to write a comedy—“a feckless, somewhat lost young man who shuts himself away from the modern world … the young man might learn a few easy lessons, and we could all share some laughs along the way.” However real life intruded—birth, death, and serious illness—to remind him that neither life nor books are to be taken lightly.
The lost young man part was more or less right. Not clear on what to do next, he moved back home to his parents’ luxurious New York apartment and decided to spend a year doing nothing other than read the Harvard Classics, a five-foot long set of books intended by its editor, Harvard president Charles W. Eliot, “to provide the literary materials from which a careful and persistent reader might gain a fair view of the progress of man observing, recording, inventing, and imagining from the earliest historical times to the close of the nineteenth century.” You may notice right away that gorging on 22,000 pages of serious text in one year does not sound very “careful.” There were works, particularly in the poetry volumes, that Beha would have liked to linger over, but in the end he realized that he had the rest of his life to get better acquainted with the books and poems that spoke to him.
I was hardly done with some of these books when I knew that I would never return to them, whereas other will probably remain touchstones throughout my life. But again, it was the books themselves that taught me this. Before I read these two superficially similar books, I couldn’t have known that Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ would mean little to me while Pascal’s Pensées would mean so much. Many of my favourite works in the Classics, such as Dana’s Two Years before the Mast or Haskell’s letter from Gettysburg, had been entirely unfamiliar to me when I started. While reading these books, I needed to judge their worth for myself. But first I needed that outdated body—the clerisy, the intellectual elite—to tell me which books to read.
There is a definite sense of passing and loss in this book, and a desire to reclaim something for the future.
I wanted to establish a connection with those who came before me… I wanted to believe that for all the things lost, there might be abundant recompense somewhere.
Beha had personal reasons to read the Harvard Classics. His grandmother had had a set, and he was intrigued as to what a devoutly Catholic wife and mother with an 8th grade education would want with the great books. He also wondered how much of what she had absorbed from those books had filtered down through to family into himself. But of course reading the classics made them his own. He relates what he read to his own experiences of loss (including loss of faith) and illness, but he also feels the loss of the literary culture that the Harvard Classics (and the Great Books of the Western World) tried to popularize. He knows he cannot re-enter that culture without becoming an anachronism in his own time, but still he feels that we have lost something valuable and beautiful.
His poems, Wordsworth tells us, “were written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure.” He warns that readers who are used to the “gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers” may find his work strange or awkward: “they will look round for poetry, and will be induced to inquire by what species of courtesy these attempts can be permitted to assume that title.”
It would surprise most readers now to hear Wordsworth’s description of his own language after reading about “that blessed mood, / In which the burthen of the mystery, / In which the heavy and the weary weight / Of all this unintelligible world, / Is lightened.” It’s not just the relative elegance of his supposed “awkwardness” that is so striking, but the complexity of this “language of conversation.”
One could be charitable and say that colloquial language evolves over time, and what seems conversational in one era is destined to sound strange more than a century later. But this won’t quite do. Wordsworth’s conversational language isn’t just different from ours; it’s richer and more beautiful. Simply put, something has been lost. When I came to this conclusion, I thought back to my grandfather. It seemed to me that our decline in self-expression rested somewhere in the fact that he had grown up memorizing lines from Longfellow whereas I had grown up memorizing lines from Caddyshack.
But what has been lost can be regained. Our predecessors were not born reciting poetry, they learned it by reading, which we can also do. We may lack the tweedy taskmasters of the past, but the task has never been easier. Culture has never been more accessible, even to elites, as it is now. Libraries and the Internet have made just about every significant work of art or thought available for little effort and expense. You can do the Grand Tour from your living room and read the classics for price of a library card. You can watch Shakespeare’s plays and listen to symphonies on YouTube. We don’t need a Harvard Classics any more, we only need people to remind us why we should keep reading (and watching and listening to and looking at) the classics.
In many ways, this is how I feel about having finished the Classics: 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 through the whole five feet, I’ll never be finished with them.