I’ve been talking lately about books that operate, in some form or fashion, as a paean to a love of literature. One of the most excellent, moving books to cross my path this year on such a topic is The Whole Five Feet, by Christopher Beha.
Harper Magazine assistant editor Beha, undergoing an incredibly difficult time in his life-cancer-recovery, family death, a stillborn novel-decided to tackle the task of completing the collection of classic works known as the Harvard Classics, aka the “five foot shelf”. The chronicle of his excursion into the classics, the past and, ultimately, himself, is what comprises the brief, touching The Whole Five Feet.
I was really intrigued as to what Beha had found in the days and months following his completion of the Harvard Classics, and so he and I exchanged a few emails about his time living inside the five-foot shelf.
Interview with Christopher Beha
BabyGotBooks: The Whole Five Feet picks up as a very, very specific project and a very, very specific time in your history as a reader. What books did you read as a child/young adult that had a formative impact on you?
Christopher Beha: When I was young, my mother read a great deal to me and my two siblings –Madeline L’Engle, the Narnia books — and this was certainly formative. But I’ve never been much of a literary nostalgic. I don’t have particular affection, really, for books that meant something to me earlier in life, unless I can return to them and they still say something to me now, rather than serving as mementos. So I don’t tend to revisit or even think much about children’s books, even ones that were once quite important to me.
A friend told me the other day that she’d seen a statistic that suggested that the physical presence of books in a house is actually more important to a child’s development than being read to, and if this is the case, then I can fairly say that the set of the Harvard Classics on my grandmother’s shelf played a formative role in my early life, even though I didn’t start reading them until a few years ago.
Now, if we’re using “young adult” not in its more recent demographic sense of “pre-adult” or “late adolescent” but in a more literal way –in which case I maybe still am one — I can say with some certainty that the single most important writer in my reading life has been the late David Foster Wallace, whom I began reading as a sophomore in college and to whom I still return with great frequency now. He wrestled so movingly with one of the major issues I’ve tried to deal with in my book, that is, the place of the didactic in imaginative literature. Put in that clumsy way, it doesn’t sound like so thrilling an issue. Put differently: to what extent is literature supposed to teach you something about the world and your place in it, and to what extent is it supposed to give you an aesthetic experience, to provide what Goethe called the highest human faculty — the shudder of awe? Are these two goals in some opposition, or is it possible to do both in equal measure? In The Republic, Socrates says that all the knowledge in the world is useless without the wisdom to know what knowledge is for. Wallace, who was thought of while he was still alive as an encyclopedic writer, was so wonderful not because of his knowledge but because of his wisdom. Since his death, it seems to have become obvious even to those who once thought of him as cold and brainy that he was fundamentally a moral writer whose main concern was the possibility of connection. But that was there in the books all along. When I started reading the Classics, I chose quite actively not to read them in an academic way; that is, to read them for their wisdom, not for their knowledge. The result is that the book is not a work of literary criticism, but a book about the part that books can play in one’s life.
BGB: Since the completion of The Whole Five Feet, have you reflected back on your time with the Harvard classics-and, if so, what of the collection has stuck with you the most?
CB:On my website, I’ve been posting some things I wrote about the books while I was first reading them, and as The Whole Five Feet has come out, I’ve been re-reading some of the volumes, particularly the volumes of poetry. As my answer above would suggest, I’m more interested in what they have to say to me now, not in remembering what they said to me then. Just this morning I returned to Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, which is fitting in this context, because it is in part about the extent to which you can or can’t revisit earlier selves, return mentally or physically to a past experience for nourishment:
That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur, other gifts
Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,
BGB: Your read of Ben Franklins’s Autobiography was refreshing to me-I’ve always read it (and commiserated with those who have similar viewpoints) an incredibly egotistical piece of work, and tend to miss the good stuff in it. Do you think Autobiography still is worth reading in today’s day and age?
CB: Franklin’s Autobiography is the very first work in the first volume of the Classics. I found it instructive, for reasons touched on a bit above, that the set would begin with such an unapologetically didactic work. You’re not going to get a shudder of awe from Poor Richard, but you might learn a few practical lessons. I found it worth reading at the time, but it’s not one of the volumes I would go out of my way to recommend. I certainly wouldn’t tell anyone to put down Shakespeare or Dante to pick up Franklin. Even from a purely practical point of view, I think you’d learn a lot more about how to live from Marcus Aurelius than from Franklin.
BGB: Do you feel, having subscribed to the Harvard Classics reason for being and stepping through them, bit by bit, that the five foot shelf achieves the purpose it was created for?
CB:The Shelf is idiosyncratic in many ways. To the extent that part of its purpose was canon-shaping, I think it was probably flawed to begin with, and it’s certainly outdated now. (I’m setting aside entirely the question of whether such a purpose is even worthwhile; I happen to think it is, but that’s a fight for another day.) To the extent that it’s purpose was to collect together a kind of curriculum and make it widely available, it certainly succeeded. And of course, it was a commercial venture — for the publishers, at least, if not for the editor — and it succeeded incredibly as that. Several people have written to me to say that after reading my book they tracked down a set of the Classics. I found this extremely gratifying. There may now be better ways to receive an all-in-one-place experience of the “great books,” but they’re aren’t many, and if my book sends others to the Five Foot Shelf, I’m thrilled.
BGB:What are you working on now?
CB:More than one writer friend gave me the very good advice to get as far along as possible on my next project before this one came out. I finished The Whole Five Feet nearly a year ago, and in the meantime I’ve managed to write a draft of a novel. A very messy draft, which will take much revision before it’s remotely presentable.