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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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on May 27, 2013
I like the point of view and voice of the narrator. His characters seemed real to me. I liked the plot set up of reading the great books of Western thought. I hoped I could glean some tips from him. I enjoyed his back-and-forth between the Life of the Mind and the Real World. His tone is pleasant. By the end, I felt I had met new friends and learned new things. What more could I want?
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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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on November 18, 2014
Sometime a glowing detailed review is not necessary because this book met my expectations and I have the 50 volume set. So it was a pleasurable addition. Would recommend to anyone thinking of buying the Harvard Classics or as an added supplement.
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on November 26, 2015
Great book to read if you like the Harvard Classics. This is the third time I have read it over a span of a few years.
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on September 3, 2015
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on June 25, 2010
This was an inspring and well written book. His mixture of his personal life during the writing and his impressions of the Harvard Classics was so well done. He is obviously a brilliant person with deep emotions that he very carefuly expresses. I loved the book.
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on August 12, 2011
I began THE WHOLE FIVE FEET by Christopher R. Beha one late afternoon and finished it at 4:30 a.m the next morning. Quite simply, this book glows in the dark.
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on December 30, 2009
I was expecting a lot more from this book, but it let me down.

It's the story of how some guy spent a year reading all 51 volumes of the Harvard Classics. Having not read most of those volumes (and having little desire to do so), I thought I would take a shortcut and read about this guy doing it.

But Beha doesn't spend much more than a couple of pages on each author. It would have been better if it had been a more intellectual history of what he thought each work to be, then what it was like slogging through each one, then how each one had changed his mind -- if at all.

Instead what he does is try to interlace the story of the classics with his own on-again, off-again illnesses, and that of his aunt, who died of cancer at about this point. I'm sure Mr. Beha really was close to his aunt, but shoehorning her into this tale didn't seem to work very well: the whole thing seemed clunky; at least for my money, I would have preferred Beha to stick to the topic at hand.

Parts of this are even downright preposterous. Parallels between the author's completely uninteresting life and what he's reading are forced. "Just as Darwin had received some insect bites while on the Galapagos, in the same way, I found my legs covered with insect bites." That sort of thing.

I got a lot more out of A.J. Jacobs' The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, which has a very similar plot. But Jacobs has about twenty times Beha's writing skill.
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on November 27, 2014
Do you ever wonder why so many tomes about reading Great Books get published...why not just read the books the authors recommend instead of spending time on their reading of them? Full disclosure: I couldn't get through "My Year of Reading Proust" (nor reading Proust either). So why did I find myself ordering "The Whole Five Feet"?

I had so enjoyed the author's novel ("What Happened to Sophie Wilder?") and the back flap said he'd written a memoir. Upon opening this, I discovered it was actually about his reading a 1909 list of classic books (which contained no novels!) most of which didn't interest me. I wondered if I'd get through this book about reading other books.

But this actually is a memoir of a young man's journey through a horrendous time of caregiving, grief, his own debilitating illness, joblessness, and loneliness....and how reading sustained him. It didn't make me want to tackle his one-year project of reading those 22,000+ pages, but it did remind me of how reading can sustain, console, inspire--and even distract us from hard times, which is no small benefit.

I won't spoil what I consider the "Eureka!" moment of this memoir--how and when he makes a discovery about himself and his illness. It's the moment that I keep remembering with amazement when I think about this book. I don't reveal it here because your enjoyment is largely dependent upon the surprise of it. But I can recommend this book solely on that scene, and the way startling news comes in one brief unexpected sentence....just as it was dropped into his life after he had long stopped looking for answers as to what was happening to him. It's good to be reminded that life can be like that, after we've given up hope.

Other things to like about this book are Beha's questioning of himself and his task, and even of the compiler of that loooong shelf of books he has given so much of himself to conquering. He's a great writer, and --it goes without saying--a great thinker.
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