Everyman's Reviews > The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everything Else

The Whole Five Feet by Christopher R. Beha
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's review
Nov 06, 2009

did not like it
Read in November, 2009

On finding out how important the Harvard Classics Five Foot shelf of books had been to educate his grandmother during the Great Depression, the author decided to take a year to read the entire set through, at roughly one volume per week, and to write about his experience with these great books.

The result could have been a fascinating look at some of the most important works of Western thought. But the actual result is a self-indulgent mish-mash of superficial thoughts about his own life by a not very interesting person.

It would be generous to claim that half the content of the book has anything to do with the actual writing of the authors involved. It’s usually about himself – sort of like a book review on Moby Dick which uses the book as a basis for an essay about a dismal fishing trip one took with one’s uncle as a child where it rained all day and you caught nothing but a really bad cold.

“Reading” the books, for the author, is something different from what it is to most serous readers. He admits at times that his reading consisted of looking at every word on the page without any attempt at understanding or appreciation. When he falls behind in the summer on his book-a-month schedule, he rushes through six volumes in October, including two volumes of philosophy and theology by Machiavelli, More, Luther, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. Sure, one can look at all the words in these books in less than a week. But what kind of “reading” is that?

And why was it necessary for a reading of a volume on scientific and medical papers to lead into a lengthy discursion on his visit to the Empire State Building to make a donation at a sperm bank? Sorry, Mr. Beha, but that’s just TMI.

What kind of reading is it to read three volumes of English poetry in two weeks? As he admits, he really wanted to take the time to read this poetry properly, but “as it was, I couldn’t take my time if I wanted to finish on schedule. So I pressed on, turning the pages like those of a novel or a biography, knowing all the while that poetry – especially the short lyric poetry that dominates the English tradition – isn’t meant to be read in this way.”

This admission is the self-condemnation of the whole project. The goal was simply to turn these thousands of pages over one by one during the course of one year. No matter that this is writing intended to be thought about, to be lingered over, to be understood. For Beha, it is simply pages to be turned.

It is the literary equivalent of a one week “if this is Tuesday, it must be Belgium” tour of fifteen countries of Europe. “Okay, folks,” says the guide as the bus pulls up to an imposing building, “this is the Louvre. We have a half-hour stop here.” The museum guide race-walks the group through several long corridors, pointing on the fly “that’s the Mona Lisa. If you glance through that door on your left, you can see our collection of Monet’s waterlily paintings. Over across the rotunda there you can see where our Egyptian antiquities are housed. Here’s the gift shop where you can spend the last fifteen minutes of your tour.” But at least when you get home, you can impress your friends by talking about “oh yes, we’ve seen Europe. Oh yes, the Louvre – magnificent, I especially loved the Mona Lisa, and Monet, and their wonderful Egyptian collections.”

If you have any curiosity about what is really in the Harvard Classics, the history of ideas they represent, their value to the human spirit, don’t waste time on The Whole Five Feet. You won’t get any of that. But if “doing” the Louvre or British Museum or MOMA in thirty minutes while listening to the babble of an immature, self-centered “guide” who has glanced at but never seen the art in question is your cup of tea, this book will be perfect for you.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Mark (new) - added it

Mark I read your review, and I'm discouraged. Probably for the same reasons you were discouraged by this book. I had hoped to read an insightful perspective on the Great a Books, perhaps taken as a whole. Have you encountered any books that live up to that expectation?

Everyman Well, there are some I respect, though none that are a comprehensive look at the full range of the Harvard Five Foot Shelf. But you might try Bloom's "The Western Canon," Fadiman's "Lifetime Reading Plan," van Doren's "The Joy of Reading," Beard's "Confronting the Classics," Denby's "Great Books," and almost anything by Mortimer Adler.

But the real insight comes from careful reading and re-reading of the books themselves. That, and participating in discussions of them on the Western Canon group here on Goodreads.

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