Friday, September 4, 2009

A New Yorker Reads the Harvard Classics

I am reading a book about a young man who has lived in New York City his whole life and is seeking to find meaning by reading the entire contents of the Harvard Classics, also known as the 5-Foot Shelf of Knowledge, because, according to its compiler, the great educator and public oracle Charles W. Eliot, these classics, that could fit on a 5 foot shelf, were all anyone needed to attain true knowledge and acquire enduring wisdom. The book by Christopher R. Beha is called The whole five feet: What the great books taught me about life, death, and pretty much everything else, and to avoid the wrath of the blog administer, who demands that all posts comply with the strictest standards of factual accuracy, I must admit that at this point I have read only two-thirds of this volume. But what I have read so far is quite good and nicely spiced here and there with stories that feature New York settings.

A significant part of my favorite chapter so far takes place in the Museum of Natural History, where Christopher and his 5-year old nephew, Peter, walk through the museum’s Hall of Fossils together. Christopher, who at that moment is just a bit obsessed with trying to untangle the complex, scientific prose of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, one of two books by Darwin selected for the Harvard Classics, is especially delighted with the sense of innocent wonder his nephew experiences as they stroll past the great reconstructions of dinosaurs the museum displays. To Christopher’s surprise, he finds that this trip and others like it are shaping his reading more than his reading is shaping his experiences.

He goes on to say at the conclusion of this chapter about his reading of Darwin and other classic writers: “It’s not by the knowledge of words that I came to understand this thing, but by my experience of things that I came to follow his words. It is all here with us. The past is buried deep in the ground of the present; tomorrow is written above us, in the stars of today.”

What Beha’s words made me think of in my own case is how much New York City has lately become a text for me that I am trying to read closely and discerningly, and that the more I do so, the more I find myself experiencing other texts, both symbolic and literal, with new excitement and new insight. To put it another way, New York has become for me a great book. The more I read it, the more I find myself wanting to gain new knowledge about the world, other people, other times, and, of course, that ever elusive thing we call the self.

1 comment:

  1. Seeds sprout best in prepared ground. So often, in my experience, learning about something in the abstract has been quickly followed by experiencing that thing. One person's miracle is another's confirmation of abstract knowledge. We will not see what we cannot imagine. I'll stop before I degenerate into platitudity (naked cliche).