Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 26
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
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Taking the Measure of Books: Reading Harvard Classics, “The Whole Five Feet”

Dilshanie Perera

Since his current biography describes him as an assistant editor at Harper’s Magazine, Christopher Beha, author of The Whole Five Feet, has, apparently, embraced a traditional lifestyle (or at least some semblance of one). Several years ago, however, his anxiety at the prospect of being an ordinary Joe led him to quit his regular job when he was on the brink of getting a promotion.

Instead, he set out to read The Harvard Classics — all 51 volumes of them — ”the five-foot shelf” of his title. From St. Augustine to Cervantes, Cicero to Mill, Emerson, and Thoreau, The Harvard Classics is comprised of great works of world literature selected 100 years ago by then-Harvard President Charles Eliot. Unlike several similar series, they have not been edited since.

At a recent Labyrinth Books reading, co-owner Dorothea von Moltke introduced Mr. Beha by noting that “as booksellers we think a lot about what are the ‘great books?’” Since “Great books” come in a variety of forms, The Harvard Classics should not be confused with the University of Chicago’s Great Books program, nor with the Columbia University Great Books curriculum that was the subject of David Denby’s volume, Great Books (My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World), published a dozen years ago.

Mr. Beha’s year-long journey through this “enormous old textbook” had as much to do with learning about himself and his family as with becoming familiar with this “picture of intellectual history as seen from Eliot’s point of view at the beginning of the 20th century.” His reading began as one family member lay ill in the hospital, and was clearly informed by the fact that the edition he was reading had belonged to his grandmother, who appears in the book in a photograph of her as a glamorous young fashion model.

At Labyrinth last week, Mr. Beha was anxious to make it clear that The Whole Five Feet is not intended to be a work of literary criticism, describing it as “a meditation; an examination of the liberating effects of books as things you live with and have a conversation with.”

In his amusing, self-deprecatory style, he described how difficult it was to get started. He kept rereading the introduction, finishing it, and “turning on a baseball game.” After awhile it got so that he could “read it during the ball game.” On a particularly emotional New Year’s Eve he finally took off, beginning with Ben Franklin’s Autobiography and working his way through “Dr. Eliot’s five-foot shelf” by reading one book a week. All the previous books he’d read “suggested other readings,” he observed. “These stood on their own.”

The reading, and the events in his personal life left Mr. Beha with a keen sense of the fact that “we’re only here for awhile.” In a New York Times Book Review last Sunday, Alexander Nazaryan observed that Mr. Beha had written “an unexpected narrative that deftly reconciles lofty thoughts with earthly pain. In doing so, he makes an elegant case for literature as an everyday companion no less valuable than the iPod.”

The Harvard Classics are available online at

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