Deciding to spend a year reading the entire 50-volume set of the Harvard Classics, Harper’s assistant editor Beha discovers things—some touching, some banal—about the best-laid plans of mice and men.
The author interlaces several stories in his debut. The main thread comprises even smaller ones—his reactions to the texts. He also tells about the Classics’ editor, Charles W. Eliot, and the genesis and publication of the volumes, about his family and—most prominently—about his illnesses: Hodgkin’s lymphoma (diagnosed while he was in college), Lyme disease, hives and a torn meniscus. A medical mess much of the time, Beha nonetheless persevered, reading while ill, while visiting relatives and while flying to England with family. (As he read a volume of Elizabethan drama, many of his fellow passengers watched Nicole Kidman in The Invasion.) There are moments of bizarre amusement—such as when the author, with his mother in the waiting room, makes a deposit in a sperm bank—and wrenching loss (the death of a favorite aunt). Beha is most effective when discussing the fragility of life, the certainty and uncertainties of death, and how the various writers he read dealt with it—or didn’t. He is moved by Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” struggles through the two volumes by Darwin, ponders the problems of translation (so many of the originals were not in English), finds the grimness in Grimm, lingers overlong with Don Quixote, says very little about some texts, quotes favorite passages from others and finds himself changing as the year advances. He has a number of epiphanies—some rather ordinary: “life was teaching me about these books just as much as the books were teaching me about life.” Finally, he resolves to remain a reader in the nonliterary contemporary American culture he comes close to condemning.
The personal and family stories are almost always gripping; the comments about great books, less so.