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The Whole Five Feet : What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everthing Else
In The Whole Five Feet, Christopher Beha turns to the great books for answers after undergoing a series of personal and family crises and learning that his grandmother had used the Harvard Classics to educate herself during the Great Depression. Inspired by her example, Beha vows to read the entire Five-Foot Shelf, one volume a week, over the course of the next year. As he passes from St. Augustine's Confessions to Don Quixote, from Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast to essays by Cicero, Emerson, and Thoreau, he takes solace in the realization that many of the authors are grappling with the same questions he faces: What is the purpose of life? How do we live a good life? What can the wisdom of the past teach us about our own challenges? Beha's chronicle is a smart, big-hearted, and inspirational mix of memoir and intellectual excursion--and a powerful testament to what great books can teach us about how to live our own lives.
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)
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May 05, 2009
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