My Competitors, #3: Christopher Beha, The Whole Five Feet

Christopher R. Beha’s The Whole Five Feet follows in the Extreme Reading tradition of A.J. Jacobs’s The Know-It-All or Ammon Shea’s Reading the OED. Unlike its precedessors, it isn’t an excuse for lame schtick; in fact it’s far too serious for its own good, completely humorless once you open the book (I suppose an editor supplied the title). Beha is a young man who decided to read the Harvard Classics straight through in one year, starting at 12 am on January 1. At 22,000 pages, his task works out to a manageable 60 pages per day, so even though he did not read every day, unlike Jacobs and Shea it’s not impossible to believe he really did what he says he did. The question is why. The answer boils down to: because they were there—in his parents’ library and at the family summer house.

If you’ve never heard of the Harvard Classics, don’t feel ashamed. It’s a set of fifty volumes assembled by one Charles William Eliot, president of Harvard for many years in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, meant to make good on his claim that anybody–and specifically the working classes–could acquire a liberal education through fifteen minutes’ reading per day from a “five-foot shelf of books.” Needless to say, then as now this was a marketing ploy (on the publisher’s part, not that of the high-minded Eliot): the Harvard Classics were a huge commercial success in their day. Inevitably, the suspicion arises that most purchases were for show, and Beha’s anecdotes about his grandmother’s allusions to the five-foot shelf are thin evidence to the contrary. (They do make me wish we’d seen much more of the grandmother, a working-class woman who became a friend of Lionel and Diana Trilling and then a model for Christian Dior; she’s by far the most interesting thing in the book).

Alas, the Harvard Classics’ day is long over. Nobody today wants the kind of education Eliot promised, and even if you did you would scarcely think his rather eccentric selection was the way to acquire it. Beha looks silly in his attempts to take Eliot at his word. Although he discovers some gems, he’s constantly apologizing for the inclusion of this or that work. More importantly, acquiring what a late-nineteenth-century elitist would have considered a liberal education seems a singularly pointless thing to do in the twenty-first century. The dead hand of the “genteel” tradition typified by Emerson and Thoreau is still wrapped around the throat of the American literary establishment, but to most North Americans today, even most readers, those dead white American males are as alien as Thomas Aquinas. The Harvard Classics all too clearly bear the stamp of their time, place, and class; not only is there hardly any Shakespeare in the collection (the publisher, Collier, originally excluded Shakespeare and the Bible because potential customers were likely to own them already, but relented when Eliot bridled at the resulting unfavorable publicity) , there’s no Marx. That economic and social thought, for the Harvard Classics, ends with Adam Smith tells you everything you need to know about the worldview readers are supposed to be absorbing (except that there’s virtually no fiction on the Five-Foot Shelf).

The problem with Beha’s project is summed up in three little words: World War I. It’s a cliché to say that the Great War killed off the Enlightenment, but if the Harvard Classics is anything it’s a selection of the writings a coterie of hyperprivileged Bostonians believed got them where they were, at what they believed was the highest stage of development of the Enlightenment. That worldview has proven as tenacious as a zombie, but it died just a few years later in the trenches of the Somme. Add Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon to Shakespeare and Marx on the list of missing authors.

All this means that Beha has to  justify the readings themselves, not just his decision as an individual to read this particular collection at this particular time. Unfortunately he is far from up to the task. In truth, he’s rather ill educated. By his own account, he spent his undergraduate career—when he wasn’t being treated for Hodgkins’ lymphoma—memorizing lines from Caddyshack. You can get away with that at Princeton, as I know all too well from my time as a grad student TA there. Just don’t expect us to be bowled over by your opinions about literature. After a four-page discussion of “Tintern Abbey,” the longest single literary analysis in the book, Beha comments: “Much of what I’ve just written about ‘Tintern Abbey’ I could have put into a blue book then [in college] if asked.” Yes, you could have—and should have left it there.

The merit of his literary opinions aside, did Beha gain anything from his stunt?

Here, inevitably, the story of his reading intertwines with the story of his life. He had a very bad year the year he read the Harvard Classics. He watched a beloved aunt die slowly and painfully from cancer, tore a meniscus, had surgery, and was diagnosed with Lyme disease. And he was a Hodgkins’s lymphoma survivor. I don’t mean to make light of Beha’s suffering. But you can see the morals he’s going to draw marching down Broadway: birth and death are realities, being part of a family is valuable, this nineteenth-century DIY curriculum looks absurd but “I wouldn’t change a thing,” yadda yadda yadda. A year of supposedly life-changing experiences and readings leads him to the conclusion: “I shall go on in the same way. Nothing in my life is going to change in any visible fashion.” Beha hasn’t transmuted his suffering or his reading into empathy with, or even curiosity about, anybody other than himself, his immediate family, and his ancestors. He gives those of us outside that charmed circle no reason to be interested in him.

Here’s a callow (in spite of being a cancer survivor) young man who has spent his life cocooned on the Upper East Side, Long Island, and the Ivy League, who quits a job he likes at the beginning of the book, who has no visible means of support, and who, according to the dust jacket, is now an “assistant editor at Harper’s magazine.” That last detail clinches it. “Assistant” anythings in publishing aren’t paid enough to sublet a New York City apartment. Assistants at Harper’s, a magazine that has survived for the last decade on the largesse of its multimillionaire owner, aren’t paid enough to eat at Gray’s Papaya. You only take that kind of job if you have independent means of support. In a word, everything about Beha screams: trustafarian! Of course he wouldn’t change a thing.

Beha’s book is trivial but it raises issues much bigger than itself. How should people be educated in the twenty-first century? In a book that really should be entirely about this question, Beha has nothing useful to say—though what he does say makes for one of his most unintentionally revealing passages. His brief discussion of education comes in the context of Locke’s “Some Thoughts Concerning Education”—a historically significant and thematically rich text that happens to be completely without practical relevance in 2011  and which Beha reduces to an excuse for his sister’s decision to homeschool his nephew: “By its nature, a tutorial system, with its one-on-one format, is incompatible with education for the masses, but this hardly seems a persuasive argument against its use by those in a postion to use it.” Beha’s classism and elitismare rarely quite so naked as this, nor is his lack of understanding of his own project. For what was Eliot himself trying to do but bring education to the masses, with the Harvard Classics as the medium for a self-tutorial? (If Beha recommended the Five-Foot Shelf to his sister, he doesn’t record the incident.)

This question raises—though not for Beha—the crucial issue: what is an “education”? Beha’s “Read these books and you will be educated” is exactly like Jacobs’s “Collect a whole bunch of facts to regurgitate and you will be smart.” Both presuppose that education is a product you acquire, just as you can buy a Nintendo—a commodity—and that owning that product is what makes you “smart,” in the same way that owning an iPad in 2011 makes you “cool” (or “uncool,” depending on what you think about the iPad).

The Harvard Classics certainly sets forth a vision of education, from an age and a class that had the self-confidence to propose a uniform and universal vision: everybody (not just those who can afford a tutor—Eliot is actually more democratic than Beha!) reads the same great books.  It’s naïve to the point of silliness to imagine that Eliot’s specific reading list works today. But the idea that some reading list should be part of everybody’s education is still very much with us. Why read at all if reading isn’t good for us? And why read anything but the books that are good for us?

I know exactly how grossly I’m oversimplifying here, but this is an essentially Puritan vision. Although Shakespeare got his innings in ( as I note in My Year with Shakespeare, Malvolio in Twelfth Night has aspects of a Puritan). the nascent literal Puritanism of his day was the most serious threat to his very livelihood apart from the plague, and it did succeed in closing the theaters after his death. More broadly, the cultural concept of “Puritanism,” summed up in H.L. Mencken’s famous definition as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy,” stands in polar opposition to everything Shakespeare stands for. If My Year with Shakespeare shows anything, it shows that the very last reason Shakespeare would have offered for reading or seeing his plays is that they’re good for you.

I want, just briefly, to suggest a better answer on Shakespeare’s behalf. Once I framed the question as “Why read at all if reading isn’t good for us?” I remembered the title of an essay by Italo Calvino: “Why Read the Classics?” Could the greatest Italian writer of the twentieth century have an answer? Well . . . not really, other than “reading the classics is always better than not reading them.” Apart from warning against believing that “the classics must be read because they serve some purpose,” he’s not interested in the question at all. Instead, he takes up the prior question, “What is a classic?” and turns it round and round until it flashes like a jewel. It’s the same effect he achieves in his great late works, Invisible Cities and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller: challenging, disorienting, and above all playful and humane. Most important, Calvino does not treat the classics, or literature, or learning, as a commodity, or readers as consumers. Instead, he emphasizes that reading the classics is an ongoing process (“A classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading”) and that classic status is a matter of a work’s relation to other works, that is, of a reader’s relation to other readers—an essentially social category (“The classics are those books which come to us bearing the aura of previous interpretations, and trailing behind them the traces they have left in the culture or cultures (or just in the languages and customs) through which they have passed”). Calvino is showing us that reading the classics is something we do because it’s good, not because it’s good for us; we do it because we’re human. The corollary is that education isn’t schooling, not something you pay to go through, collect a piece of paper, and have done with; it is another name for the social process we call living.

Again, I’m oversimplifying—this is a blog—but Beha and Calvino represent two entirely different worldviews. Do I really need to say which one promises a better understanding of Shakespeare and better reasons for reading him? Throughout this book I’ve tried to strip away decades, even centuries, of obfuscation about Shakespeare. Shakespeare is so exciting, so vital, so dangerous a writer that he has to be tamed and made boring. It would not do for the greatest of all the Dead White Males to be an unstoppable, liberating force.

Beha could take his motto from one of Warren Zevon’s greatest songs: “I wanna live on the Upper East Side/And never go down in the street.” Shakespeare is always down in the street. More than any other writer, he understands that living a human life is an ongoing project.

Comments are closed.