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A highly personal tale of "literary peak-bagging"
on June 3, 2009
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...)