The Master Plan: Seven Years to Read the Great Books

Do you make New Year’s Resolutions? If so, do you actually keep them? My track record in that area is probably not better than most people’s.

But this year will be different (really!). I’m reading a new book on goal setting, Michael Masterson’s The Pledge: Your Master Plan for an Abundant Life. I have read Masterson for several years, and this man has a thing or two to teach most people about personal productivity. When I follow his recommendations, I find myself moving much more quickly towards whatever goals I’ve set for myself.

In The Pledge, Masterson recommends creating a “master plan” for yourself by setting seven-year goals in several areas of your life. I’ve already worked mine out, and one of them is very relevant to this blog:

Beginning in January 2011, I will embark on a seven-year project to read the 60-volume Great Books of the Western World series.

Actually, I’ll have to tackle the set in six years, because my first year’s goal is to read the 10-volume Gateway to the Great Books set, which was created as a sort of “warm up” to the longer series.

If you peruse the table of contents of the Gateway set (here) and the Great Books set (here), you may conclude either that I am a speed reader or that I have taken leave of my senses. Neither conclusion is correct (I hope).

I realize this is an ambitious goal, but I think my chances of completing the project are realistic. I have read the majority of works in the set in whole or in part at some point in my life, although in some cases it has been fifteen or twenty years since my last exposure to them. The biggest hurdle for me will be the scientific works, but the editors of the set assure their readers that the fundamental nature of the works they selected ensures that the layman can hope to understand them. We shall see.

I plan to link my reading program to this blog as follows:

1. Each Monday I’ll offer some observations on what I read in the preceding week. Hopefully they will be of some interest.

2. I’ll also post my reading schedule for the upcoming week. If any of you wish to attempt portions of this program with me, perhaps we’ll be able to have a fruitful discussion. In most cases, you won’t need an actual copy of the Great Books sets to participate; nearly all these works are in the public domain and can be found somewhere online for free.

2011 is still several days away, but rather than twiddle my thumbs and possibly get cold feet, I’m going to read the volume that introduced the first edition of the Great Books series: The Great Conversation (available online in PDF format here). I’ll post some reflections on it next Monday before diving into Volume I of the Gateway to the Great Books set.

If this seems like an exciting project to you, why not join me? Gird up your loins and jump into the Great Conversation!

About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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27 Responses to The Master Plan: Seven Years to Read the Great Books

  1. Garret Myhan says:

    Wow, Jason. Very ambitious. I have wanted to do something like this for a while now, but it seems like such a huge mountain to climb. My parents own the GBWW, but I think it’s a set from the 70’s. Have they made many changes to the set since then?
    Best of luck. I may try to read along with you some.

    • Dr. J says:

      Hey, Garret. It’s great to see you comment here! There are two editions of the GBWW set. The original edition is from the early 1950s; the second is from the early 1990s. The major difference between the two is that the second edition added several volumes of 20th-century writings. A few other works were added from earlier centuries, and four or five texts from the earlier edition were removed. If I stay on track, I won’t be getting to the 20th-century writings until 2016 or 2017, so your parents’ set will have just about everything I’ll be reading from 2012 to 2015. The Gateway to the Great Books set was published in the early 1960s and does not overlap with the larger series. It is out of print, but I saw used sets on for as low as $40.00.

      I hope to see you commenting frequently on the reading schedule!

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  3. Jeff Jewell says:

    Of course if you already have a Kindle, an Ipad, a Nook, or even access to a PC then 90%+ of the works will be available free in electronic format. Pretty much every classic that is out of copyright can be downloaded 100% free, 100% legally.

  4. Alethia Clark says:

    Before I make this commitment, which I must admit is appealing as I have wanted to read the GB for a while now, can you give me a general idea of how many pages a night?

    • Dr. J says:

      For the first year, the volumes in the “Gateway” set have anywhere from 350 to 800 pages. I’m guesstimating 6,000 pages for the set, less than 20 pages per day, or about 20 if you take Sundays off.

  5. Kyle Reschke says:

    Sounds like a great plan! I have read several of the scientific works and of course will always be up for a discussion or an attempt at clarification if any is needed. I will see you in a few weeks, or given the timetable, about half of volume 1 in your new adventure.

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  10. Norman Horn says:

    What a great idea! (No pun intended, okay maybe intended.) Speaking of the free materials, you ought to link to those materials online where people can download Kindle books and/or etexts for free. That could be helpful for those wanting to follow along with you.

  11. Redmond says:

    Well done – I am still working my way through road to serfdom.

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  13. Christian says:

    In an ideal world this would be a routine, not a challenge. Nevertheless, it’s a wonderful idea. Are you enjoying? And aren’t you missing some authors on the lists? I haven’t found some writers I really enjoy.

    I know my comment is somehow outdated. Keep doing this great work, anyway,,,

    • Dr. J says:

      Missing some authors? I didn’t make the lists, and obviously there are many wonderful authors who did not make it into these 70 volumes. There is a discussion of this question in The Great Conversation where the authors explain which authors they selected and why, if you want to know more about the process.

      If you look at the weekly posts (tagged “Great Books” on the blog if you search, you’ll find how much I’m enjoying these readings. It is really a great experience. Thank you for your comment.

  14. Amy Williams says:

    Best of luck to you! We are well into October of 2011, how are things coming along?
    -Amy Williams, Shimer College

    • Dr. J says:

      Amy, if you search the site for “Great Books,” you’ll see a list of the weekly posts I’ve made. Also, the “Great Books Project” tab on the site takes you to a page where I list everything I’ve read so far.

      Thanks for your encouragement!

  15. Chris says:

    Your idea intrigued me when you started, but I didn’t keep up with your reading. I am going to start and see if I can either catch up or at least finish after you do. This weekend takes me to your January 2011.

  16. freddygoulet says:

    I just found out about the Great books. I was wondering if anyone could share where they are finding the books online for free through kindle or other pdf formats.

  17. Hi, can you tell me if you’ve charted out the full seven years’ readings in a single document? For those who’d like to join later, that would be extremely handy. I can’t seem to find anything like that on your blogs. Also, what have you found is your average time spent reading daily? So I know how to modify the schedule. Thanks!

    • Dr. J says:

      Rachel, I am compiling the weekly readings as I go. I do not have a single document that lists a master schedule. The closest thing to that is the list of weekly posts you can find from the drop-down menu under the header. Maybe when I have completed the readings in 2017 I’ll create such a document.

  18. Paul Pryor says:

    I bought the old set of GBWW as well as the Gateway set years ago with the intent of reading them through. I also got the 10 volume great ideas program off of ebay. I had several false starts but finding your blog is a great motivation to get back into them. I suppose I have a lot of catching up to do.

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  20. Akshay Raj says:

    I just found that my dad has the entire collection, both the gateway and great books! I was literally going to search on Amazon and just for some reason decided to look into our family book collection. For someone having waded through some portions of the Buddhist philosophical texts, I think the Gateway Series is like the Sutta Pitaka in the sense that they possess the quality of entertainment for the reader. The Great books I would say share their treatises in a flavour similar to the Abhidhamma.

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