In The Whole Five Feet, Christopher R. Beha claims that he's "never been one for the 'take your medicine' school of culture." I'd respectfully disagree. Masochistically, he sets out to read the Harvard Classics, 22,000 pages of classic literature, over the course of a year. And while dealing with the death of a beloved relative, a breakup, and his physical deterioration—as a twentysomething he has hives, a knee ailment, cancer, and Lyme disease—Beha's reading becomes his medicine.
The Harvard Classics were the brainchild of Charles Eliot, president of Harvard for 40 years. Published in 1909, the series of books was designed to provide a higher education to anyone who had 15 minutes to read at the end of the day. At the time, the vast majority of Americans had not finished high school, and the books (nicknamed the "Five Foot Shelf," for the amount of space they took up on a bookshelf) were found in a wide range of households. The series ran the gamut from Emerson to Darwin to Cicero—works that, as Beha says, "one at least wanted to have read."
The Whole Five Feet is disarming. Beha's utter humility and unpretentious tone while describing an inherently academic and potentially irrelevant goal—to read a jumble of old-timey books and essays—puts the reader immediately at ease. Beha has a nice, unaffected way of including his internal monologues and the lessons he learns over the course of the year, as he struggles with his need to connect with the past and get perspective on his life.
Nearly halfway into his experiment, Beha reads one of his favorite novels, Cervantes' Don Quixote. Like Quixote, Beha is immersed in a fantasy world of books, only to realize that while he may be a sickly, romantic kid living in his parents' basement, he's actually connecting with the past and, in turn, the world around him. "Cervantes has faith in the power of books, for good or for ill, to send us back into the world," he says. What starts out as a mission to keep from being lost, adrift and alone in his sickness, ends with Beha finding solace. The Whole Five Feet reads like a charming college syllabus, written by a warm-hearted professor, who through a mutual love of books has inexplicably become one of your closest friends and confidants.