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The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everything Else Hardcover – May 6, 2009

4.2 out of 5 stars 29 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

At first glance, Beha's situation is enviable: the 27-year-old Princeton graduate quits his job and is welcomed back into his parents' Manhattan apartment, where he decides to dedicate himself to reading all 51 volumes of the Harvard Classics Library, a five-foot shelf of (mostly) Western literature from Plato to Darwin. If only it were that easy: he must come to terms with the death of a beloved aunt early in the year, then is himself afflicted with a torn meniscus and a serious case of Lyme disease. With so much personal drama, the classics frequently take a back seat, and several volumes go completely unremarked. Beha spends the most time on those books that spoke most keenly to his personal circumstances; not only does he discuss John Stuart Mill's existential crisis at length, for example, he compares his own reaction to reading Wordsworth to the philosopher's. The broader conclusions Beha (now an assistant editor at Harper's) reaches about cultural values and the meaning of life are disappointingly pat; even the young memoirist concedes, I haven't written the book I set out to write. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


“ ‘In much wisdom is much grief,’ counsels the book of Ecclesiastes, and in Christopher R. Beha’s tender intellectual memoir [of reading the Harvard Classics], we find plenty of both. . . . Life intruded rudely on Beha’s sabbatical, and he rose to the occasion by writing an unexpected narrative that deftly reconciles lofty thoughts and earthy pain. In doing so, he makes an elegant case for literature as an everyday companion no less valuable than the iPod.” —New York Times Book Review

“Winning . . . Intensely felt . . . Beha is shtick-free and serious of mind . . . Without making grandiose claims, this book serves as a guide to today’s perplexed, reflexively ironic reader, an inducement to think seriously without apologizing and feel deeply without hedging. . . . It demonstrates how and why to read seriously.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“An elegant and honest memoir . . . 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.” —Bookforum

“Disarming . . . Beha’s utter humility and unpretentious tone while describing an inherently academic and potentially irrelevant goal—to read a jumble of old-timey books and essays—puts the reader immediately at ease. Beha has a nice, unaffected way of including his internal monologues and the lessons he learns over the course of the year, as he struggles with his need to connect with the past and get perspective on his life. . . . What starts out as a mission to keep from being lost, adrift and alone in his sickness, ends with Beha finding solace. The Whole Five Feet reads like a charming college syllabus, written by a warm-hearted professor, who through a mutual love of books has inexplicably become one of your closest friends and confidants.” —The Portland Mercury

“[In the Harvard Classics, Beha] finds comfort in the fact that these writers faced the same dilemmas, pains and sources of hope he finds today. The result is a thought-provoking, tender, compelling read that is part memoir, part ode to the power of great books.” —The Oregonian

"The Whole Five Feet is no book report; Beha’s reflections are far the richer because he delicately wheels and dives among both the great writers’ ideas and his own life experiences—proving, if we needed proof, of the greatness and centrality of reading. About John Stuart Mill, Beha reflects on the nature of pleasure and happiness, observing through the prism of his own illnesses, 'Your comfort, especially your physical comfort, isn’t under your control, so you’d better find something else to work at.' The idea here is mature far beyond his years, and yet the style is all salt spray and blue sky." —Free Range Librarian

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press; 1st edition (May 6, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802118844
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802118844
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.3 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,340,673 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
In an era when the race to develop technology and standardized testing have changed the nature of education, reading The Whole Five Feet reminds us why a liberal arts education is important for everyone. Beha, as a cancer survivor, is no ludite, he knows that we must progress in the sciences as well, but all of us will be, as Beha finds himself, more thoughtful people for spending some time with the great books.

Ironically, though Beha is well educated, he finds that he needs the Classics as much as the intended working class audience of 100 years ago. Sadly, many of us who are educated were exposed to the great books when we did not have enough life experience to understand them. I hope that The Whole Five Feet will inspire many to turn back to the Classics and to use our leisure time to continue our educations, as well as to think hard about how we are educating young people today.

The published reviewers miss the point when they complain that Beha's responses to the Classics were not always profound. First of all, they were sometimes profound, which is enough, and secondly they were honest. It is just as important to admit when a great book does not move us, and to examine why it may still be worth reading (or not). Too many of these "I did this in a year" projects come out too neatly to be true.

As to the matter of his age, in some areas he has wisdom beyond his years, and in others he relates to books as a young twenty-something.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Toward the end of this fascinating story, Christopher Beha admits that it isn't the book he had intended to write -- and all I can say is, thank heavens for that. The plan, he says, was to tell a tale that was "essentially a comedy, about a feckless, somewhat lost young man who shuts himself away from the modern world and its cultural white-noise -- from life as it's lived in his own time and place -- to immerse himself in classic literature." In other words, Beha's book was intended as one in a series of what I somewhat flippantly refer to as 'stunt stories', books revolving around their authors' attempts to perform some feat, such as learning to cook like Julia Child, read all of Proust or live Biblically, typically within an allotted timeframe. (In this case, Beha set out to read all 51 volumes of the Harvard Classics within a year.)

It's a cute idea, and if that had been the book that Beha had produced, it wouldn't have been interesting enough to review. Because, frankly, the ideas of a 20-something having something profound to say about a century-old compendium of 'great books' is, well, improbable. But what Beha found instead is that the works included the the 'five foot shelf' of books in the Harvard Classics series produced a series of unexpected lessons and insights. First of all, there were no pat answers or easy insights or epiphanies. Secondly, far from removing himself from the events of his life, the books both helped him make sense of that life and drove him back into the world. "Books draw meaning from life, but they also give meaning in return," he concludes. "These books wouldn't let me lose myself."

There were times when Beha would have relished being able to do so.
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Format: Hardcover
The Whole Five Feet is a joy to read, and you don't have to be well-versed in the classics to find immense satisfaction in the story of a guy who took a year to read them. In fact, the fun of this story lies in how deeply personal Beha's story becomes. You wind up realizing that reading is never a passive endeavor -- you always bring yourself into it, and what you get out of it will depend to some degree on what's going on in your life at the time. During his year of reading, Beha suffers profound loss and illness. In his reading he finds not answers but comfort, and the repeated urging of authors within the canon to get out and live life. Again and again, he finds that these great writers are really just people of different cultures and eras who were consumed with the very same questions we all wrestle with today.

Beha writes in a smart and accessible style, and he seems more a friend to the texts he discusses than a student of them. He seems, in fact, to be the ideal reader, which happens to make him the ideal writer to capture this experience on the page. This book serves an inspiration, both to go back and read those classics, and also to keep moving forward and live a rich and fulfilling life.
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Format: Paperback
Christopher Beha's book is an enjoyable book. Beha decided to read "The Whole Five Feet" of the Harvard Classics (published in 1909 by Collier and sold about 500,000 times)in the course of one year. His book tells us in a very readable and gracious way about the experience of reading 22,000 pages in 51 books, how his readings affect his perception of himself, his health, his faith and his family, particularly the suffering and death of his aunt. I have to admit that I was not and am not particularly interested in Mr. Beha's aunt and his personal illnesses, but he makes a wonderful case for literature not as an abstract set of information and books as lifeless classics, but as part of our life, as important means of understanding our lives and our world and coping with both. I therefore see the book as an encouragement to continue my exploration of literature - if not necessarily in the dusty form of the Harvard Five Feet Classics Library. Because it is more important to read literature than to read about literature!
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