Duration to Completion of the Great Books of the Western World

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.[1]  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.

[1] 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.


Filed under Education, Great Books and Harvard Classics Series, Literature

7 responses to “Duration to Completion of the Great Books of the Western World

  1. David…thought I’d just mention an old religious teacher I had when I was 14/15 yrs old who was our teacher for Math. He told us to take out our Euclid and note the 300 or so theorems and that we had about 6 months to the leaving exam…its impossible to read and know all this he said…with a toothless grin….but I have the answer: he took out a small piece of paper from his cassock pocket and said it contained just (I can’t remember the exact number) 20 theorems , which if we knew we could extrapolate the others…well assuming we were intelligent and followed his lessons closely!
    Does this apply to the great books I wonder…just a thought…I enjoy your site hope all is well with you, Tony

    • Hi, Tony. That’s definitely not the case with the Greta Books. The reason that Euclid’s geometry does work that way is that it is a formalized axiomatic system. If you have some idea how the most crucial theorems are constructed, are fluent in the kind of reasoning, and extremely good at manipulating/using the axioms, you can construct all Euclidean geometric knowledge from them. As it turns out, many thought that nature was similarly structured (axiomatic), in general –a major premise of Enlightenment thinkers. This is why Spinoza’s “Ethics” is structured like it is, it can been seen in Descartes’ method of tearing down (to find an axiom(s)) and building up, and this is why, when reading Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe,” you see the protagonist learning all of knowledge, effectively, from principles.

      Adler, by no means, included every great book of the West. I feel like the criticisms, some of which I have mentioned in my other posts on the GBWW, are spot on, in noting that much African, Latin American, and Eastern European material is missing. We certainly cannot extrapolate the value of these texts from Adler’s. As I said in the post, each book is so rich that it requires a lifetime of contemplation, and then more contemplating with each additional text we add to our experience. It’s an endless process, and all of the works are great, first and foremost, because they add an inexhaustible collection of unique thoughts to an ever self-enriching human intellectual heritage.

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. Thanks for writing this series, I printed them all out and read them in detail. I’m planning on making the investment, in terms of time, and I wanted feedback from people who personally read through the Great Books or Harvard Classics.

    I’m in my mid-thirties and I’m going to make this a lifelong pursuit, instead following a ten year plan or any set schedule. There are so many blogs out there with their authors who proclaim they’ll finish the Great Books in a certain period of time and the blogs end up deserted in a few months. I feel like the time constraint is a burden that I rather not start off with. I like your advice, so I’m going to follow it and take my time with the books, really trying to digest the material. It’s a cliche, quality not quantity, but I find that there’s truth in it.

    I would like to know how you read books, at least books you are reading for understanding as Adler liked to phrase it. Do you follow the generalized rules from “How to Read a Book”? Do you read the book more than once? How do you take notes? Do you create an outline? Do you mark your books, if so how?

    I know these questions seem elementary, but I want to get the most out of each book I read. I would love tips and suggestions, if you have them. Thanks.

    • Roshan, “elementary” but hugely important! I can’t tell you how many people are so careless with their approach and methodology when it comes to reading. So many people don’t even give these questions a second thought, some not even a first consideration!

      First, I’ll say that everyone needs to personalize their system. Many of Adler’s generalized rules, I have embraced. However, there are a number that I do not live by, one being Adler’s suggestion to read a book in one sitting. I think he was very serious about this, and I don’t think most people can do it, and I certainly don’t do it unless I am reading novels, at least most of the time. I even qualify that, in responding to one of your other questions: if a book is super important to my profession (philosophy), I will read it as quickly as I can —even a bit carelessly—, and then begin again from the beginning, slowly plodding through the text, as if for the first time. The reason I do this is that, I have found, you can only really understand the beginning of a book after you know where it is all going, after you have a sense of the project, and after you have a sense of where each part, as you read the second time, fits into and supports the project. The reason for reading novels in a single sitting is aesthetic reasons: reading Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, and Les Miserable in a 48-hour period helps you keep the feeling the author is trying to convey through continuous reading. If you do that, do it on a day off; get up and get reading, and only break for meals, etc. If it’s a longer novel, you can do it on a vacation. Adler’s suggestion is a bit absurd, but he has a point that should be well taken, i.e., read continuously and without extreme breaks, so as to capture the aesthetic feels of the book.

      In general, I tend to reread books over time. I find my impressions are vastly different, usually, at different times. I have found that the things you learn in life can have an immense impact on the way I (and we all) view a piece of literature. For example, the first time I read The Death of Ivan Ilych, I was moderately impressed by candor exhibited by Ilych in coming to grips with his own death, and I especially enjoyed the portrayal of others’ emotional disconnectedness from his impending death. Years later, after studying existentialism, the novella became my favorite, as so many more parts of it simply clicked for me. I do advise coming back to books, even if you know they are touted as being great but did not enjoy them. The Old Man and the Sea was one of those for me.

      I tend not to make marginalia, but I do think it is one of the most convenient ways to get your ideas out as you go. I have notebooks dedicated to books I know I will reread. In fiction, I do make marginalia, but I also sometimes write notes in a small hand-held notebook. The function of having a separate notebook, rather than placing thoughts in a margin, is that you can see how vastly different your thoughts are, without being influence by marginalia. I compare new notes with the old ones. Most important is writing some kind of reflection on anything you read. If I am pacing myself through a book, I will often write an immediate reflection of a page or two, then go for a walk to ruminate over some particular set of aspects of a story or a set of ideas.

      As far as outlining, I wouldn’t call it “outlining” but something more like diagramming. When I read work that has an argumentative strand that runs throughout, such as a work of history, philosophy, or science, I often draw diagrams with headings, and then I will take some of the most important ideas, quotes, and my own synopsis of the section’s function. The diagrams help make sense of things for me. I have done outlines for a couple of fiction works, but I don’t do it enough. It’s time consuming.

      Thanks for the comment and questions.

      • Thanks, David, I appreciate the well thought out response. I tend to take too many notes so I’m thinking about trying to read like how you described reading a philosophy book. Go through it first, carelessly as you put it, and see where it’s going and what points the book is trying to make. Then if it’s worth it, and most of the “Great” books are worth it, then I’ll take notes on things I found to be key ideas. This way I know what’s important and what’s not, I guess that is every note taker’s dilemma. Adler recommends the same approach with inspectional reading followed by analytical reading.

        I admit I’m poor at reflecting on what I read, my notes are more of a summary. It’s fantastic you’re able to write a page of two on your thoughts, I’m going to start that but maybe a paragraph or two instead 🙂

        Good advice on reading the classic works of fiction in a short timespan, at least when it comes to the first reading, I see how that can really help you get the feel of the books. Thanks for your help.

    • Tony, I don’t know on what grounds you call it “hubris” to try to understand the world we live in and the numerous perspectives we might avail ourselves. If anything, to discuss continual rereading is anything but hubris.

      I also don’t understand what would be particularly “American” about the project, as you see it.

  3. Dan

    I have just discovered this blog and have so far read your GBWW & HC series as well as this blog post. Thank you so much for your thorough appraisal of the two sets! I am going to be picking up a set of the Harvard Classics in a few days and am very excited about this. I am a little disappointed however that the “official” reading plan only spans one year of approximately 15 minute readings. I was wondering perhaps, since you mentioned elsewhere that you read through the entire set yourself (and I would like to emulate this), whether you had a more thorough reading plan for the HC set? Something like the 7 and 10 year plans you kindly directed us to for the GBWW series. I have been unable to find anything myself. I would really appreciate any guidance on this matter.


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