Let's be honest about these books. The print is cramped, the translations are hideous, and the selections are indeed rooted in a view of Great Books and Great Ideas that, while still quite vibrant, is less robust than it was in 1955. But no one in full control of their senses would sit down and read from cover to cover the Dante, the Homer, the Aristotle found in this set.
All true. But none of that matters. What you are buying here is the first three volumes (especially volumes 2 & 3) and their attendant reference set. I've owned the set for 20 years and found it invaluable because of those three first volumes. Here's how they work:
Volume 1, The Great Conversation, is essentially an inspirational text centered on the importance of a broad Liberal Education, as set against other views of education. You may take or leave it. The treasure house is the next two volumes.
The Syntopicon (volumes 2-3 of the set) is an index of 100 fundamental concepts that built the Euromerican mind and cultural vision. To give you an idea, here is a sample of the Great Ideas:
Art, Beauty, Cause, Chance, Democracy, Desire, Emotion, Eternity, Family, God, Good and Evil, Government, Habit, Happiness, History, Immortality, Infinity, Justice, Labor, Language, Life and Death, Love, Mathematics, Matter, Memory, Oligarchy, Progress, Prophecy, Quantity, Religion, Rhetoric, Sin, Soul, State, Time, Truth. War and Peace, Wisdom.... you get the idea: Big Ideas.
Each of the 100 ideas is introduced with a brief essay that explains it and attempts to sketch out how it has been viewed throughout Western history. The essays are not dumbed down, but most of them are perfectly accessible to most of us. After this introductory essay, there follows an index of virtually every significant reference to that idea in every author in the set; you are given page numbers within this set of books.
THAT is what you are buying.
Want to see how Plato's idea of "Punishment" differs from Rousseau's? Just look it up in the Syntopicon, and follow the indexed references. Want to know how "Animal" was dealt with in Montesquieu, William James, and Freud? Go to the Syntopicon.
Certainly, once I have looked up the references in the GBWW volume on Plato, I will give the text a read there; but if my interest leads me to want a deeper view, I'll also go to other sources -- more accurate translations, even the original texts, if I have that language -- and read the better translations &c in those books. But I start with the Syntopicon. If tracing out the history of the main ideas that shaped Western civilization appeals to you, this is your set of Great Books.
Thus: this is not a set of books you buy to read for pleasure, curled up by the fire on a rainy day. By that standard, this set would be an abysmal failure. But this IS a set of books you would use as one of the most powerful reference libraries you can put on your shelf. By that criteria, you cannot find a better anywhere today, online or otherwise.