Christopher Beha, a young New York writer, decided while at a low point in his career and personal life that he was going to read through all the volumes of the Harvard Classics, a series of books published about a hundred years ago with the lofty aim of introducing average readers to the classics of western literature.
It’s an eclectic collection, and Beha spends as much time reflecting on the purpose of the collection and the role of these “classics” in shaping culture. Perhaps it’s an antiquated idea, that people without the benefit of a liberal arts university education can be self-educated by reading “Great Books” such as the classics of Greece and Rome and more modern writers as diverse as Dante and Darwin.
While Beha reads his way through the five-foot shelf in his parents’ home, he has real-life struggles to deal with too. A beloved aunt is dying, while Beha — himself a cancer survivor — suffers some health problems of his own. He intertwines his reading with his experiences, reflecting on what a shelf-full of Great Books can teach about life and death.
Beha is no A.J. Jacobs, but the book is an interesting read with some valuable thoughts about the power of reading.