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52 of 53 people found the following review helpful
on May 9, 2009
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. This does not make what he has to say less important -- in fact, we have plenty of places to find out what the grey haired men think about the classics, the very fact of his youth in undertaking this project makes it that much more interesting and should recommend this book to those who teach the classics and work with young people.

As a supporter of young artists, I found it fascinating to see how Beha evolves as both a reader and a writer over the course of the year, and to accompany him on this journey. In this way, the book is well edited, because it is clear that the early chapters were not totally re-written to neatly build to the conclusion. This adds to the honesty of the experience, which is almost documentary as much as memoir.

While we readers may not have the luxury of quitting our day jobs to embrace the Classics, we can read while we live, we do not (and, he seems to say, perhaps should not) need to leave the world in order to learn from books. Beha is not so much attempting to give us neat answers to our lives as he is giving us a window on his personal search for truth and wisdom, thereby encouraging us to purue our own. In that way, he honors and extends Eliot's original intent with the Classics.
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39 of 41 people found the following review helpful
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. The year that he spent reading the classics -- which starts, oddly, with Benjamin Franklin's autobiography and then ranges from Homer's Odyssey and the Greek dramatists, to Oliver Wendell Holmes's writings on medicine and Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle, with stops along the way for Cervantes and Dante -- was a year marked with personal tragedy and trauma. A beloved aunt, dying of cancer, lives with his family and while he is occupying himself with his reading he is also caring for her and trying to cope with her death. Himself a cancer survivor, Beha then must grapple with his own series of illnesses, including a bout of Lyme disease. These all trigger a lot of existential thought, logically enough, which affects how he digests what it is that he's reading and how he reacts to it.

His reading cause Beha to question even the nature of knowledge. People would ask him what he had 'learned' from the books; he was all to aware that an honest answer, that he felt as if he was being initiated into a kind of fraternity, that he was "learning how to be in the world", would only sound pretentious.

I disagree with the Publishers Weekly review that Beha's conclusions are 'disappointingly pat'. Rather, they are personal. Anyone else conducting the experiment would have written a very different book; should Beha himself return and repeat the experiment at the age of 50, no doubt he will choose to focus on very different works; less about John Stuart Mill, perhaps, and more on Milton or Moliere. And certainly he'll draw very different conclusions, because his life experiences will be different, just as any of us attempting to write a book may (or may not!) have written something as good, but certainly would have written something that was just as personal. But not all of us would have been as prepared as Beha to let events overtake us and divert us from our well-laid plans. And that is Beha's ultimate triumph; that he allowed himself to be forced by the events of the year and by his reactions to what he read to write this book rather than what would have been a self-conscious and suitably ironic book about the nature of Great Books. Maybe the latter would have had more erudite insights, but it wouldn't have been as honest or as compelling for readers. I would have found it hard to take that book seriously; this one reads like an honest self-evaluation at a pivotal point in a young man's life. No, it may not stand alongside Dana's "Two Years Before the Mast" as worthy of inclusion in a future edition of Harvard Classics, but it's a thoughtful and very well-written rumination on the nature of reading, the importance of books and of a life lived thoughtfully. At a point in time when reality television shows are taking over the airwaves and the kind of attention that's required to peruse this kind of writing seems to be hard to find in our overcrowded, hectic lives, it's a relief to find someone of Beha's age finding value in words written centuries ago.

Highly recommended for anyone looking for a well-written and thought-provoking but not overwhelming non-fiction book that can be easily packed and taken along on vacation by those who want something a bit more meaty than the latest thriller or romance.

For those with Kindles -- Many of the volumes of the Harvard classics that Beha devoured are also available in Kindle editions for a mere 99 cents, thus making the 51 volumes a very cost-effective proposition indeed. (And rather than five feet of shelf space, they take up only part of your one inch-wide Kindle...)
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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on April 27, 2009
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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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on February 21, 2011
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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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
The Whole Five Feet is much more than a review of the Harvard Classics. Christopher Beha takes on the big questions of life, and answers them in perspective to the classics that he is reading, but in addition with the personal viewpoint of a young man in his twenties who has had to face more than his share of life's difficulties.
The book is a gripping read that I could not put down. It is the story of a family who pulls together to face the crises of life, and addresses them with humor and resolve.

This a great gift for a college graduation or for an aspiring writer.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on April 30, 2010
Like so many thinking young people, Christopher Beha grapples with the fundamental meaning of life and his place in it. Unlike most of his peers, however, he has been able to relate his quest for meaning and understanding in a moving paean to literature and those who penned it. The Whole Five Feet is a stunning first book by an author who, despite his young age, has much to say, yet says it with economy, perspective and focus. As I read, I found myself frequently returning to the back flap of the book's dust jacket to remind myself that the author is still a young man, writing at the start of life's journey, not at its end. Mr. Beha eloquently relates his evolving sense of self as he reads through the 51 volumes of the venerable Harvard Classics (the volumes of which cover five feet of shelf space). He learns that "books draw meaning from life, but they also give meaning in return". In The Whole Five Feet, Christopher Beha movingly demonstrates the truth of this statement by artfully juxtaposing the sometimes tragic, sometimes comic experiences of one year in his young life with the eternal words of the books chosen for Dr. Elliot's magnum opus. If this book is an indication of what we can expect from Mr. Beha in the future, the future is rosy indeed.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on May 22, 2011
This book is about the place of common knowledge in an era of fragmentation, and of the place of belief in an era of irony. The title of the review comes from Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach," which is about the withdrawing sea of faith in the modern age of the 19th century. And yet the 19th century was the age par excellence of Culture with a capital C, of what Arnold himself defined as "the best which has been thought and said." Beha is confronting a world in which faith - which he does not share, although his family are devout Catholics - does not provide the answers he wants and Culture is also often consigned to the dust heap.

As a young man, he is seeking some guidance about how to live his life, and so turns to Culture. This is a brave move to some degree, as Culture is hardly a unifying belief or possession, even among educated people. The idea of the acculturation of immigrants via Culture, which was at the core of Harvard President Charles Eliot's vision of the Five Foot Shelf of Books, now can be questioned on many levels. And yet, what if we (which is to say Beha) were to read these dusty books from the point of view of today?

Beha does find that they speak to him, and perhaps he especially needs it during the year he set aside to read, as he and his beloved aunt become seriously ill. This is not a Cliff Notes guide to the great books, which would probably not be that interesting, but rather a reflection on what greatness is and how death does not end the conversation. To be great is to be immortal and to be able to touch many lives, including Beha's.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on August 1, 2012
I felt that I needed to review this book, because it is not a common or typical sort of book, and it is hardly at all what I thought it might be when I picked it up. Based upon other reviews here, I'm not the only one who made this mistake.

As another reviewer commented, thank goodness Beha did not attempt to "describe" all 51 volumes of the Harvard Classics. Wouldn't that just be a Cliffs Notes for all of us too busy or lazy to read the "classics" for ourselves? Instead, he read the books, and he learned from many of them, tolerated others, and told us his personal story and how the books influenced his story along the way.

I am not particularly interested in a memoir written by a typical 20-something. In fact, the weakest aspect of this book, in my opinion, was Beha's all-too-typical attempts to explain his disinterest in the religion of his family. This is not because I am opposed to all things secular--though I am a religious person myself--but because he didn't grapple with this topic particularly well or say anything I didn't think as an undergraduate or hear in the words of my college friends. Frankly, that bit has just been done to death. I was with him, otherwise, empathizing all the way, with his struggles with loss and illness and wondering what it means to be an intellectual in an increasingly vulgar/low-brow world.

I am someone who came to this already aware of the Harvard Classics, and hoping to read them "someday". Reading Beha's book reminded me that I want to do this. It also made me, as a parent, think perhaps I will read these books with my son when he is a teenager, undertaking the journey together. Perhaps, what I personally shared most with Beha, and why this book resonated, is the sense of great books being a force that creates movement in us, shifting us along the intangible path that has been traveled before and will be again by future scholars, sometimes with a destination in mind, and sometimes just to enjoy the scenery.

I liked this book. I read it over the course of about a week, and found it mostly easy to put down and come back to, except, perhaps, feeling some reluctance to wait as I got to the final chapters. If you are interested in Literature as a subject, or the Classics and what they mean to us culturally, consider reading this book. I borrowed it from the library, and, while I wouldn't bother to purchase it or read it again, I did bring it back hoping that the very new-looking book will be read by many others in the future. It is a book I wish I felt like I knew more people with whom to share it, but I don't think it will really appeal to most.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on February 1, 2011
Beha decides to dedicate a year of his life to reading the 50 or so red volumes of Harvard Classics. He's always wanted to read them 'one day', but he's more motivated when he learns that his grandmother read them all...and said that they taught her a lot about life. Oh, and Beha's life isn't going too well, so he hopes the classics can teach him some lessons also.

Well, needless to say, it wasn't an easy year. He lost a dear family member and dealt with some serious health problems of his own. He couldn't work - some days he couldn't walk, or read. And the classics are not always easy reading. But, in the end, he finds that the classics teach him a little about life, and...life teaches him a little about the classics.

I liked this book, but did not love it. I found it a little dry in places. However, I do recommend it for those who enjoy books about books.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on October 20, 2009
Beha's debut inspired me in two different ways. First, it explained to me what the Harvard Classics are and instilled an interest in reading them. Second, it encouraged me to continue to write about what I'm reading and combine that with how the books relate to my personal life. Books are great because they can touch each person differently. A personal review of how a book touched you can be much more interesting than a bland third-person book report.

Beha writes about his experience of reading all fifty volumes of the Harvard Classics within one calendar year. The Harvard Classics are a set of books chosen almost a hundred years ago by the then President of Harvard, Charles Eliot. The books were meant to be an educational tool to the common man. In those days illiteracy was much higher and the amount and availability of secondary schooling was much less. Eliot hope that reading 15 minutes of these books per day could "give any man the essentials of a liberal education". The Classics are a selection from the "great books" of non-fiction spanning thousands of years that fit onto one shelf, five feet wide. Just reading through the titles alone, one understand the power of such a shelf.

Chris always impressed me with his way with words and interest in literature. Going to college with him, I viewed him and others amongst our group of friends as a beacon of inspiration for reading within my own life. After declaring Computer Science as my major early on, I focused on engineering and less on artistic side of life. Fortunately, through these guys I saw the character built through an education of language, history, art, music, and other liberal studies. He was among those who inspired to me to pick up "reading for fun" again as I entered my last year of college. Since then, I have made it a focus to enjoy a certain number of books per year to nurture that liberal arts side of me.

The Whole Five Feet describes a rough year for Beha, although he has had several. Interestingly enough, it begins with a sickness and death, and ends with a wedding. This is a classic literature comedy and also very similar the way my year has gone in 2009. I could not have read this at a more fitting time. Beha struggles through a bit of health issues as well, which really helped me relate to him as I recall his initial health issues in college. While I probably could have been a much better friend to him through those troubling times during school, it gives me comfort to now understand in more detail what he went through and how he has since gotten on.

The books within the Classics that Beha relates to provide some inspiration of where to start should I make an attempt at the shelf (maybe in another 5 years...or maybe I'll do the fiction shelf first). His enjoyment of books such as Two Years before the Mast sound extremely enticing to me. However, I am not sure I would share his same boredom with a work such as the Origin of Species. Either way, whether he liked them or not, it only provided more inspiration for me to read them all.
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