A 5-Year Plan for Reading the Great Books

I’ve decided that 2016 will be the start of my life plan to read all of the Great Books. There have been several plans for reading the whole set floating around, but none which have the criteria I need:

  1. Lasting for 5-6 years, so as to finish concurrently with my PhD in physics. I regard reading the Great Books as a part of patching up holes in my college liberal education, but it is still an education – I want it to prepare me “for life,” just like my PhD is preparing me for life as a scientist. So I want to be able to say that I covered the whole spectrum when I graduate from the “apprentice” phase to the “journeyman” phase of my life (after my doctorate).
  2. Providing a regular blend of authors from different eras: ancient Greeks, Medieval philosophy, Enlightenment philosophy, 19th century literature. I have grown tired at having to plow through the entire corpus of ancient Greek philosophy before even starting Augustine or Shakespeare, for example. The point of reading the entire corpus is also to get the “big picture.” While you might argue that it’s impossible to fully understand medieval philosophy without reading Plato and Aristotle first, practically it’s more likely that I will have had forgotten most of the latter by the time I get to the former, if I read them in sequence.
  3. Having a balance between philosophy, history & social science, and imaginative literature. Some plans have this balance, but usually at the expense of No. 2.
  4. Skips most of the math and natural sciences. Of course, there are many benefits of reading scientific subjects directly as the first discoverers perceived and presented them – one weakness of modern scientific education is the presentation of only the “right” theories and ideas, obstructing the torturous journey it took for humanity to get from Aristotle to modern quantum field theory. But as I will also be doing a PhD concurrently, it is more time-efficient to do my scientific training in a modern manner first. An important exception will be Darwin’s works, which I have had the pleasure of reading in a first-year seminar and will be glad to return to again.

Now, the official Great Books set which has 60 volumes in total, listed in chronological order and of roughly similar thickness. The first two are just idea indexes for the whole collection named the Syntopicon. Five years is 60 months. It is quite tempting to simply read about one volume a month. But this goes against criterion No. 2. A practical solution is simply to read a few time-separated volumes concurrently at a time.

First, I shall eliminate the volumes which predominantly contain mathematics and natural sciences:

  • 10 (Euclid, Archimedes)
  • 15 (Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler)
  • 26 (16th century medical science)
  • 32 (Newton, Huygens)
  • 42 (Lavoisier, Faraday)
  • 56 (2oth century science including Einstein)
  • 8, 9 will be combined together as we will skip Aristotle’s scientific works.

We have eliminated 7 volumes, leaving us with 51 volumes left. I will read 3 volumes at a time, giving us 17 different trios of works. In reality it’s likely that I might lag in my reading during the normal academic year (September-May) and have lots of free time during the summer. So, I shall take the personal target of reading three trios every year – one for the fall term, one for the summer, and one for the spring term. This results in a completion time of ~5.7 years.

Which volumes will I pick? I will not stick to strict schedule. Instead, it will be adjusted as I read, as my tastes and desires will surely evolve along the way. Another consideration is also that some volumes are abnormally thick or thin – I will have to go through the latter ones more quickly. Last and probably most important, I want to read new authors that I have never encountered before. The following is a rough list of the books I have already read in the set over the years:

  • Illiad, Odyssey (Homer)
  • 8 dialogues of Plato (including The Republic)
  • 14 plays of Shakespeare
  • Moby Dick (Melville)
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Twain)
  • The Origin of Species (Darwin)
  • The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoevsky)
  • The Heart of Darkness (Conrad)
  • Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Joyce)
  • The Metamorphosis (Kafka)
  • The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald)
  • Animal Farm (Orwell)

One can see that there is a lot of unexplored territory in my intellectual experience – no Medieval authors, no Early Modern or Enlightenment philosophy. To begin with in this new grand plan, I will roughly pick one volume each from three broad eras: the Ancients (all before Augustine), the Medievals (Augustine to Shakespeare), and the Modern (Enlightenment era to the 20th century). For this semester, I will read volumes 4 (Aeschylus), 16 (Augustine), and 37 (Gibbon – Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, part 1). I have deliberately chosen these three authors that I have not read before, and feel excited to dive into.

At the micro-level, my pledge is to read at least 30-60 minutes every day, and 2 hours a day for Saturday and Sunday. I hope that I will successfully persevere and go through my plan!

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