I was afraid to start reading The Whole Five Feet, because I was worried it would be the book that Christopher Beha admits he thought he would be writing — a gimmick book in which a cagey young New Yorker does “X” for a year in order to have done something clever enough to write about. (Cook Julia Child’s recipes. Live Biblically. Dine locally. Fight with the Taliban. Etc.) And probably, that pitch sold the book and that’s what Beha thought he would be writing, but he’s not that kind of writer and we’re all the better for it.
Beha’s year reading the Harvard classics has great complexity — death and love, fear and epiphany, life in the moment and memory — but what struck me most of all was not his assessment of the classics and their impact on him but first, my memory of what it was like to be 27 and adrift, and second, my own encounter with some of the works he was reading that year.
It’s a difficult age, the late 20s, a time when some of us looked around to realize that some of our friends were (seemingly) settled and prosperous. I was 27 the year I joined the Air Force on the heels of eviction and other financial disasters, and Beha was 27 when he broke up with his girlfriend, moved back in with his parents, and took up reading the great books.
Beha’s observations about the great books are astute and interesting, and this book serves as a minor refresher course (Pascal and Augustine, my good old chums!) and an enticement to the texts we haven’t read (Allesandro Manzoni sounds swashbucklingly fun).
But The Whole Five Feet is no book report; Beha’s reflections are far the richer because he delicately wheels and dives among both the great writers’ ideas and his own life experiences — proving, if we needed proof, of the greatness and centrality of reading. About John Stuart Mill, Beha reflects on the nature of pleasure and happiness, observing through the prism of his own illnesses, “Your comfort, especially your physical comfort, isn’t under your control, so you’d better find something else to work at.” The idea here is mature far beyond his years, and yet the style is all salt spray and blue sky.
And so it goes through the The Whole Five Feet, ending only slightly clunkishly in an “afterword” about the Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. (Beha is at ease with the great essayists and philosophers, but he becomes strangely tonguetied over Jane Austen — then again, I can see her having that effect on people.)
If I were working in a traditional library I’d take great pleasure book-talking this book to a diehard fiction reader, or recommending it to a book group in search of something fun and different. But I can recommend it to you, and hope you or your patrons will enjoy it as much as I did.