The Christopher Beha Interview

Today I interview the author of an interesting new book called The Whole Five Feet, about his experiences reading the Harvard Classics over one year. He also is an assistant editor at Harper's Magazine. His essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, The Believer, Tin House, Bookforum, and elsewhere. He is the co-editor, with Joyce Carol Oates, of the Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction.

Which of the Harvard Classics did you most enjoy reading? You have to pick just one.
The cop out answer -- that I can't pick just one -- happens to be true in this case. But if I must, I'll choose Emerson's essays, which I already knew quite well before encountering them in the Harvard Classics and which have long been favorites of mine. I'd probably give another answer on another day, though.

Which was your least favorite?
Simply as a reading experience, my least favorite was Darwin's On the Origin of the Species.

Different question: which do you think is the most overrated?

See above. I certainly wouldn't say that the historical or intellectual importance of Darwin's work is overrated. If anything, I suppose that some segments of the population are too quick to dismiss it, because they are unwillingly to grapple with its implications. But to the extent that a "classic" is a book that can be read and enjoyed by the "common reader," rather than just paid lip service, I'm not sure Origin of the Species qualifies. Scientific writing creates a tricky question for canon-makers for two reasons: it's usually written for a specialized audience, and it is meant to be superceded by future work. This is where compiling a "great books" list differs as an exercise from using books to teach intellectual history.

What was the first thing you read when you were done reading the whole five feet?
I actually went on from the five foot shelf to a second Harvard Classics set -- the fiction shelf. So the first thing I read was Fielding's novel Tom Jones, which is the first volume of that set.

Was this a difficult book to pitch to an agent/publisher? How different did it turn out from your original idea?

It wasn't an especially hard sell, as these things go. The book I "pitched," though, wasn't the book I finally wrote, mostly because events in my life during the reading year made it impossible to write the jokey "my year of doing X" book that I had planned. This book, I think, is a much better book, but I'd rather have skipped some of those experiences and written a slighter work.

What would you include if you put out your own set of classics?
Allowing for the fact that the Classics were compiled in 1909, and thus skip over the past hundred years of literature, their greatest lack are 19th century writers like Nietzsche and Marx, whose works had such a profound effect on the 20th century. So I'd probably throw in Marx's Capital and a representative work of Nietzsche's, maybe Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

I read that one of the reasons you embarked on this project was to get away from a novel you were working on: what's it about?
I think I'll just say that embarking on this project succeeded pretty well in getting me away from that novel, and leave it at that.

Is that the same novel you're working on now? If not, how are they different?

See above. Strangely enough, the novel I'm working on now is if anything less self-consciously concerned with literary tradition than my first, failed novel.

Why did you give yourself a year to read the books?
The honest and uninspiring answer is that the calendar year seemed like the most marketable of arbitrary time limits. Also, it seemed challenging but still do-able. (There are 51 volumes, so I was able to read roughly on a week.)

Have you been hearing a lot of stories from readers about their own (or their families') experiences with the Harvard Classics?
A number of people have told me that they own untouched sets of the Classics and that reading my book has inspired them at least to crack a few volumes. This has been nice. One person mentioned that I had
"inspired" him to place his set on Ebay, which I suppose means it's more likely to find its way to someone who will read it...

What's the difference between the Harvard Classics and the Great Books?
When the Harvard Classics appeared, the term "Great Books" wasn't really in usage to describe classic literature. This was brought into the mainstream by a second, similar project, the Encyclopedia
Britannica's Great Books of the Western World, which was largely undertaken by Mortimer Adler and others at the University of Chicago.

What did you do when you needed to get your head out of the books? TV? Walks? Reading magazines?
I never really felt the need to get my head out of the books in that sense. My reading was integrated to a surprising and gratifying degree with the rest of my life. When I wasn't reading, I was just going about my life -- seeing friends and family, being in the world, etc.

How did you know how much of yourself to put in "The Whole Five Feet" and how much of the books?

This was a tough problem, though it was made easier by the natural integration I mention above. Talking about the books meant talking about my life; talking about my life meant talking about the books. My editor also helped a lot. It's a common complaint about the contemporary publishing world that editors are too swamped with the business of publishing to do any real editing, but this wasn't my experience at all. My editor was a kind of collaborator in a way that was extremely valuable to me.

What do you rely on to learn about new books? Word of mouth? Goodreads?

Books often point to other books, I find, and so many of my "recommendations" come from reading I've already done. I also have good friends whose opinions I respect, and we spend a lot of time talking about books. There are a handful of critics whose positive reviews will send me looking for a book, but not all that many.

Do you read the reviews? Which do you take more to heart, the critiques of the part of the book that are autobiographical or those that are more about the books?

I read the reviews. It's tough not to, especially for a first time author. As someone who writes reviews myself, I think I have a healthy attitude about the importance or lack thereof of any one person's opinion about my work. The frustration comes when someone makes fundamental errors about plot points that suggest they didn't give the work serious attention. Beyond that, the reviews don't mean all that much to me. That goes for the positive reviews as well as the negative. (I've had a few of both.)

What have been some of your favorite pieces published during your time at Harper's?
As a reader of books, I'm especially proud to work for a magazine with such a strong review section. Most of the best critics around -- William Gass, Cynthia Ozick, Wyatt Mason -- write frequently for us.

What would you say sets The Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction apart from other short fiction anthologies?
The idea behind the anthology was that it be largely composed of stories from the past few years. Around the turn of the century, there were a number of "Best of the 20th Century" collections. Nearly a decade into the 21st Century, we thought it was worth collecting some of the best work done since then. Joyce Carol Oates, who was the primary editor of the collection, has very catholic tastes as a reader (and, indeed, writes stories in just about every imaginable mode), and the great strength of the collection, to my mind, is its diversity.

Realist stories by Edward P. Jones, Maile Meloy, and Jhumpa Lahiri share space with more "experimental" work by David Foster Wallace or George Saunders. I think we did a pretty good job of displaying the
full range of fiction being written in America these days.

How does it feel to be the 236th person interviewed for
Delightful. Now I have a new reading project: making my way through the first 235.