The Whole Five Feet: What the Great Books Taught Me About Life, Death, and Pretty Much Everything Else - Christopher Beha The Harvard Classics, or "The Five Foot Shelf," is a series of books originally compiled in the early part of the 20th century with the express intent of bringing culture to the masses. While this sort of "charitable" educational project can be seen as elitist, I like to think that in this case it was not. By the early 1900's, the Classical education of yore was going out of style, but quite a few people were loathe to see it go. So, the president of Harvard and a few others compiled an immense 22,000 pages of "classics" to help average people educate themselves in their free time. There are no novels in this collection, as at the time they were considered extremely accessible and popular.

Christopher Beha was in his early 20's, living with his parents and just entering his 5th year of remission from cancer when he decided to tackle a task he had kept in the back of his mind for some time: read through the entire Five Foot Shelf in one year and write a book about it. His initial intention was something lighthearted and a bit on the fluffy side, but a confluence of real life events pushed him in another direction. The onset of Lyme disease and a death in the family created a more somber, reflective tone for his book than he originally intended (I'm not postulating, he says so in the book!). This tone works, for the most part, because while it tackles sadness and worry, it doesn't allow those things to bog down the actual journey through the books. Is it occasionally a bit too philosophical and serendipitous? Sure, but that's generally how memoirs focusing on reading work; everyone whose written one always seems to find the right book at just the right time.

I wouldn't call this book a favorite, but I enjoyed it. Christopher Beha has a comfortable, easy way of telling a story and keeping sadness from becoming maudlin or sentimental. The overviews of the books were interesting, though by no means comprehensive; really, it's not the books that are the point, but how the books affected Beha for the year he devoted to them. And he did manage to read the whole series in a year, which is impressive.