Friday, December 5, 2008

Charlotte Mason Basics: Living Books

Have you ever had a time where, in reaching the end of a chapter of a read-aloud, your children begged you to read 'just one more chapter'? Were you encouraged to continue because you loved it just as much as they did? I'd be willing to bet that the book you were reading was not a textbook! What you experienced was the power of a living book.

What is a living book?
Charlotte Mason talks about the mind being an living entity that needs to be fed, not a container to be filled. This important distinction sets the stage for understanding the concept of living books. If the mind were a container, we could simply give children a list of all the 'facts' or information they needed for life, get them to spend their days memorizing it and they'd be educated! However, this is not the way the mind works. The mind, being a living thing, needs the food of ideas, not information. Ideas feed the mind because they stick and they take on a life of their own. They originate in the child's mind. They are not put there by someone else. A worthy idea is like a room in a beautiful home. It becomes a place all our own where we can store the treasures we want to keep. Information is just stuff. Without a place to put it, it gets lost, it is not useful and it is a burden to try to drag it all around since there is nowhere it belongs, nowhere we can put it down.

This is where living books come in.

Living books are those books that inspire ideas - the unique thoughts originating from the thinker - not information which originates elsewhere. They inspire because they are written in a story format by an author who is passionate about the subject, making his interest contagious to the reader and sparking an emotional response. These books leave the reader wanting more of the subject, not less. They contain literary language, intended to help the reader's mind form a vivid mental picture. If there are illustrations, they are accurate and inspiring.

How do you know whether or not something is a living book?
Of course, you could read the entire thing, but in the middle of a giant used book sale, this is not practical. ;) Karen Andreola, author of A Charlotte Mason Companion, suggests doing a 'one page test'. After judging the book for general suitability, she recommends reading one page aloud to your children, while you watch for signs that their minds are opening up. She says that a living book can be identified by the children begging for more! I would suggest that you can do the very same thing, without your children, if you are on your own. Pick up the book, decide whether it promotes ideas that are true, noble and beautiful. Choose a page and read it to yourself. You should be able to tell soon enough if you have found a keeper. You will want to continue reading.

It is also a great benefit for a mother to learn who may be trusted to recommend true living books. There are a number of great lists available in print form or online which are helpful in choosing books. Sometimes, you will find librarians who really understand the concept of living books, as well as homeschooling companies who promote the same kind of education you are seeking for your children. (I know I can trust anything recommended in the Ambleside Online curriculum, for example.) These are all terrific sources, since it is impossible to preview all the books your children will want to read. My children have far more time to read than I do!

One caution I would add is not to buy into the idea that a book has to be old to be worthwhile. Or, that all old books are living books. Or, that all Christian books are worthy of our time. Charlotte Mason was always on the lookout for newly written books for her students. There are books being written all the time that are true, noble and beautiful and fit the criteria of living books. You will also find there is a ton of old twaddle (and plenty of Christian twaddle, too).

What is twaddle?
I find the word almost self-defining. Twaddle refers to books that are 'dumbed-down' to a level beneath the child. They are books that lower, not raise the bar. A red-flag for me is when I see a shelf full of nearly-identical looking series books. The books may appear to have one author, but often the name is really a pen-name for a team of authors all cranking out book after book in a single year. Often, the books are connected with television in some way.

I have heard it said many times that it doesn't matter what a child is reading, as long as he is reading. My friend Sandy responds that this is like saying, "It doesn't matter what they are eating, as long as they are eating!" Of course it matters. The act of reading by itself does not encourage a healthy mind anymore than the act of eating alone encourages a healthy body. In fact, if we are not careful about what is going in, it will actually do the opposite.

In our family, I do allow a little bit of twaddle, which we call junk-food books, as long as the content is not objectionable. However, I severely limit the quantity. The children are allowed to choose only one 'junk-food' book when we go to the library.

On the subject of living books, we have a favourite Christmas tradition I would like to share with you. Each year, in December, we read the book, Letters from Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkein. We read one letter each night. They are absolutely hilarious and each one is accompanied by a lively illustration. Our entire family loves this tradition and we never tire of hearing the letters again and again. I can highly recommend this book.

Do you have a particular favourite living book your family or your children are currently reading?


  1. Great post! Thanks for the Tolkein book recommendation. I know my kids will love it. I have already put it on my Amazon list. I'd better click "order" soon before the list gets too long!

  2. Amazon is dangerous, isn't it? That free shipping after $39 has definitely boosted up a few orders of mine in the past! I hope you will enjoy the book. :)

  3. I have found your blog to be very encouraging and refreshingly down to earth. Thank-you for your time and efforts. I checked out the Ambleside website - what a great resource! I look forward to using it as I continue homeschooling.

  4. Hi Melanie,
    It is great to have you here! I'm thrilled that you liked the Ambleside site. It must have been a huge amount of work for the wonderful ladies who put it together...all for free. What a gift to all of us. :)