I get many search queries that hit my website, and loads of questions, pertaining to how long it takes to read the Great Books of the Western World (GBWW), edited by Mortimer Adler. Of course, there’s no strict answer to this question, but I can give some perspective. I think, for the average working layperson, reading the set within ten years is more than reasonable. A couple such plans may be found by clicking here and here. In fact, another plan puts the duration at seven years, and this might be the outright reasonable timeframe for the average working (and more or less disciplined) layperson. That particular plan may be found here, by clicking on this sentence. Partly, it will depend on reading speed and speed of comprehension; but there is an additional consideration, which so often is missed by the folks who make these reading plans, especially the more intense versions. That consideration is reflection, contemplation, and, to put it most precisely, sustained meditation on the work. There is something moderately paradoxical in this, because it not only requires time, and evaluation of the text with respect to its period in history, its intellectual tradition, and place within the “Great Conversation” entailing the whole of the intellectual tradition, it is also a process that is also necessarily incomplete (i.e., ever requiring more time in contemplation). It is incomplete, because full evaluation requires bringing those great books already read into conversation with that which has been recently read. My point is that, though one might seek to read the Great Books of the Western World, it is very easy to rush the process. “Having read” is not necessarily to say “having read deeply and understood on many levels”; likewise, it is not to say, as Allan Bloom has put it, that the book has become a part of you.
I make these last set of points to encourage digestion of great books. The first set of remarks point toward the ontological possibility and feasibility of reading the series, so far as the average working layperson is concerned. I think it natural to presume, as one should, that the readers I call “at-large intellectuals” can read the series much more quickly, while still spending time at the appropriate level of thought upon the works. These at-large intellectuals are those who spend a considerable amount of free time reading, in conversazione, and perhaps even writing, for their own purposes, their thoughts on various books, articles, and ideas. At-large intellectuals can probably, regardless of reading speed, do the series in four or five years –three, if work schedule and nature of employment permits. A good particular case I have to refer to is one such at-large intellectual friend, Gabriel Fischer, a Pittsburgh firefighter. His timeline for finishing the Great Books of the Western World has been put firmly at the five to six year mark, and that’s with supplementary material (see recommendations below). He certainly has a number of other, competing intellectual pursuits, such as reading popular periodicals (New Yorker, Atlantic, Current Affairs, etc.) and teaching himself Spanish —not to mention two children. Given this example, I think four years is a solid guess at a duration for completion.
Again, bearing in my comments to the effect of “having read but not having absorbed,” I read nearly all of the books in a period of fourteen to eighteen months. For the most part, that’s all I was doing during that period, which was broken into two pieces –six months coming right as I was exiting high school, the other eight to twelve months coming during my M.A. work in Humanities at American Public University. After high school, I was taken under the wing of my then-intellectual mentor, historian-cum-high-school teacher, Ernie Oskey. Struck by the amount of knowledge someone could have about the world —and I still find his knowledge immensely impressive—, and consequently feeling like I didn’t know anything by comparison, I set out reading all day —and I mean ALL DAY. In the six months, or a bit less, between high school and starting studies in physics, mathematics, and astronomy at the University of Pittsburgh, I read between 450 and 500 books, construing “books” loosely as anything from the length of Acadia to The Grapes of Wrath. (This is not at all unlike me and my obsessive study habits, which, for those who know me, can be likened to my period of studying chess, going from not knowing how to play to USCF B-class player in two years (2008-2010) as an adult —a feat rarely heard of.) For those as obsessive as myself, the Mortimer’s collection can be read at breakneck speeds within a year’s time, but, for the sake making the works of part of you, I do not recommend it. What I do recommend, as my good friend and abovementioned at-large intellectual independently suggests, is to do context-building lecture series alongside the great books as a supplement toward understanding. Such lecture series may be found to be produced by the Teaching Company, or within the productions of Recorded Books’ “Modern Scholars” series, through Free Culture, open courseware of numerous universities, iTunes university, and anyone offering a “mooc,” which a “massive open online course.” As I go through Homer again (the first time being while at American Public University), I do so with the Teaching Company’s series on Homer, for example.
 Actually, this was one of the reasons I did the degree there: they generated a large part of their master’s program around Adler’s set. It also gave plenty of time to do some of the reflecting that I recommend to folks embarking upon the list of works.