Christopher Beha is a 20-something Princeton grad living in his parents’ Manhattan apartment and undergoing something of a quarter-life crisis. Sounds thrilling, I know. He finds himself drawn to the five-foot shelf of Harvard Classics books inherited from his grandma, a woman who educated herself with them through the Great Depression, and decides to read through all 51 volumes in a year. Voila: a memoir.
Overall, I appreciated Beha’s openness to the questions posed by the Great Books: What is the life worth living? What are knowledge’s limits? What is a good death? What is the purpose of education? Heck, I appreciated his openness to the “Great Books” themselves and the value of past wisdom. The book’s most moving parts occur when Beha’s year doesn’t pan out exactly according to reading schedule, and his lessons in the meaning of suffering include sharing an apartment with his dying, beloved aunt. Having faced his own trials of serious illnesses, including cancer as a college student, Beha takes history’s great thinkers at face value when they confront their own mortality and sense of purpose. Some of the most poignant sections were when Beha, a fallen-away Catholic, dwells on the importance of tradition, belonging, and faith’s role in shaping culture. And his chapter spent pondering the value of cultivating culture (especially through reading the old, good books), but also of engaging modern culture (by actively consuming popular media) — and whether the two ideas are exclusive — has given me a lot to think about.
I wanted to read Beha’s book because I’ve been trying for awhile to formulate my thoughts on the value of a Great Books education. (Also, why season three of Veronica Mars is dramatically sub-par to the previous two, and whether Felix is so far “behind” his sister in terms of talking/being a member of civil society because we ignore him too much. Keeping it real.) I mean, Luke and I met in and subsequently sat through 7 out of 8 seminars together in our university’s Great Books Honors program, so there’s that. (We bonded sophomore year when my look of surprised horror at accidentally playing footsie with our curmudgeon of a Franciscan friar caught Luke’s amused, knowing expression across the table. Pause to shudder through relived awkward moments).
Our last semester of Honors was something of a letdown, taught by a nice, well-intentioned, Distributist (he once spent an entire class waxing on the glories of owning one’s own cow) adjunct professor who left me feeling that the Catholic faith he championed was not fundamentally different than the modern ideologies we discussed and decried. I mean, he certainly thought it was, but there was something about his impassioned presentation of 20th-century Catholic thinkers — and for the life of me, I’m still trying to nail down what — that failed to convince me that a life of faith (specifically, a life lived within the Church) is bigger, more expansive, and more freeing, than ideology. I believe it is (because otherwise, what’s the point, right?) , even as I try to reason myself there. But with no thanks to Prof. Great Books, who had his books, had his thinkers, and therefore had his system which allowed him and his to lead their nice, structured lives, cow and all, with little thought to the other planetary systems orbiting around them. (Terrible analogy, I know).
Beha doesn’t go into detail about his reasons for falling away from his childhood faith, but from the sound of it, he grew up in a faithful Catholic family, surrounded by practicing members of the Church with bookshelves laden with Catholic classics and theology. That he’s read them shows in his beautiful fiction. What I’m trying to get at is that Beha’s story in The Whole Five Feet reminded me that life, and people, is more nuanced than that last Honors semester would have led me to believe. That, while there’s profound truth to Newman’s famous quote, “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant,” there’s also a danger of triumphalism and the easy dismissiveness of those who “just haven’t read enough of the right things yet.” And, Catholic or not, I think that leads to an impoverished culture.
To be honest, the Great Books still mystify me, mainly in part because they went over my head in college, and it wasn’t until after I graduated and started working that I started connecting the strands and realizing their relevance. (Sidenote: this book really helped me with that synthesis). The Whole Five Feet reminded me of the value of going back to the voices of the past and participating in their conversation — even continuing it in the culture we create today. And it made me newly appreciate revisiting that canon with a reading partner whose perspective is different than mine.
Anyways. Go see Housewifespice for more book recommendations!