The Five Foot Shelf - BBC Podcast with Ian Sansom

August 01, 2019


Last year, the BBC's Seriously channel released a podcast called The Five Foot Shelf. Presented by Ian Sansom, the podcast is loosely based on Charles Eliot's idea that all the knowledge for a liberal education could be contained within books which fit on a five foot shelf. Sansom asks the questions: "what if people today from all walks of life were asked to recommend books to be included on a five foot shelf? Which books do they think might be required for a complete home education?" In the podcast, he visits Scotland's national book town, Wigtown, where he sets up shop at The Open Book and invites readers to drop by in order to recommend books they would like to see on a modern-day "five foot shelf".

Readers of my site will be well aware that this podcast was of great interest to me. Having spent so long reading through Eliot't "Harvard Classics" in order to distil the content for a year of liberal reading, I've become interested in which books would qualify for a modern-day equivalent.

Sansom's podcast appears to present only a small part of his project. Googling suggests Sansom visited Belfast in addition to Wigtown; indeed at the very beginning of the podcast, he explains that he hoped to travel the length and breadth of the country in order to find the most worthy titles to appear on his shelf. Perhaps the project is currently incomplete, and we will see the fruits of his labours in a future TV series, or even as a published, five-foot set of books?

For me, the short 29 minute podcast places less importance on the books - and their worthiness of appearance on the shelf - and more about the value of the titles to their respective owners: the books which matter to them, and the stories behind them.

Be sure to check out the Five Foot Shelf podcast for yourself, and consider which books you would suggest be added to a modern-day five-foot shelf.

Photo credit: BBC Sounds Website.

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