What are living books?

I have not met anyone else who homeschools with the Charlotte Mason method (in person, anyway).  Lots of homeschooling moms I meet have heard of Charlotte Mason, but don’t really know what the method is about, or how to apply any of the principles of her philosophy to their own homeschools.  I get a lot of questions about it, but the question I hear the most is some variation of this:

What are living books?/How do I know if a book is a living book? 

Let’s find out, shall we?  From Miss Mason’s Home Education series:

Their power of giving impulse and stirring emotion is another use of books, the right books; but that is just the question––which are the right books? (Vol. 3, Ch. 16)

Even parents in Charlotte’s time were not always sure which books were the right books.  It can be daunting to try and choose books which stir emotion and inspire students – especially when the curriculum for entire year hinges on these great books.

Charlotte goes on to illuminate what a living book is in bits and pieces throughout the Home Education Series:

A fit book is not necessarily a big book. (Vol. 3, Ch. 16)

I think many parents fall into the trap of thinking that living books must be huge or act as a “spine” for the entire year.  This is not true.  A book may be small, but can still be a true gem and full of wonderful content.  Books by Holling C. Holling come to mind, as does The Little Prince.

The children must enjoy the book. The ideas it holds must each make that sudden, delightful impact upon their minds, must cause that intellectual stir, which mark the inception of an idea. (Vol. 3, Ch. 16)

To me, this section says, “Are your children begging to hear or read more of the book?”  Sometimes a good book takes a chapter or two to really get invested with the story.  But, I say if you hit chapter three or four, and the kids are still uninterested, it might be time to lay it aside.  This will be dependent on each family.  For us, Margaret Gatty’s Parables From Nature is a book we chose to lay aside.  It was not captivating them and reading it was a struggle.  Yet, I know many other families who adore that book.  We may come back to it in time.  On the other hand, it took a couple of chapters of The Little Duke for us to fall in love with the story and see how wonderful and noble it was.  Other families I know could not make it through that book at all.

We cannot make any hard and fast rule––a big book or a little book, a book at first-hand or at second-hand; either may be right provided we have it in us to discern a living book, quick, and informed with the ideas proper to the subject of which it treats. (Vol. 3, Ch. 16)

A book may be long or short, old or new, easy or hard, written by a great man or a lesser man, and yet be the living book which finds its way to the mind of a young reader. (Vol. 3, Ch. 21)

Some trial and error is inevitable in the process of feeding our families a steady diet of quality books. As we go through the process of trying to find living books, we will learn discernment.  I have gotten pretty good at determining books written down to the child (twaddle) versus books that have them reaching and growing.  In the beginning, I followed suggestions of other CMers, and then I began to learn how to spot them on my own.  I still discuss books often with other parents using this method (via the internet).

Another VERY important thing to realize here is that just because a book is old, does NOT mean it is a living book.  Some older books are garbage.  Alternately, there are many wonderful books which have been written recently.  In my opinion (and I know many will not share this, which is ok), the Harry Potter series of books are excellent literature that teach many, many wonderful things like loyalty, friendship, love, sacrifice, and choosing right vs. wrong.

We reject epitomes, compilations, and their like, and put into children’s hands books which, long or short, are living. (Volume 3, Chapter 20)

Finally!  We get ideas on what kinds of books to avoid, which is actually quite helpful.  Most textbooks fall into this category.  I cannot begin to tell you how frustrated I have been in college courses to only have anthologies to read.  Many, many times I had to seek out an entire work from the library to read because an anthology left me wanting more!  I hate only having access to snippets of the good stuff.

I love this particular passage, and since many of our living book choices are for history, it’s especially important:

Let him, on the contrary, linger pleasantly over the history of a single man, a short period, until he thinks the thoughts of that man, is at home in the ways of that period. Though he is reading and thinking of the lifetime of a single man, he is really getting intimately acquainted with the history of a whole nation for a whole age.  (Vol. 1 Part XVIII)

This is such a beautiful idea!  If you want to really dig in and understand a period of history, find books written about someone in that period.  Biographies, autobiographies, letters, etc.  Children will be able to immerse themselves in the sights, sounds, politics, and culture of the time.  How many of us have been lost to other times and places through the writing of a good book?

We are all capable of liking mental food of a poor quality and a titillating nature; and possibly such food is good for us when our minds are in need of an elbow-chair; but our spiritual life is sustained on other stuff, whether we be boys or girls, men or women. By spiritual I mean that which is not corporeal; and which, for convenience sake, we call by various names––the life of thought, the life of feeling, the life of the soul.  (Volume 3, Chapter 15)

There are times when some twaddle is acceptable. I think we all enjoy a light read from time to time, especially when life has been especially hectic and our mental processes have been exhausted.  I enjoy novels for light reading, especially in the summer when life has slowed down.  My kids enjoy comic books and other picture books (Barbie, Dora the Explorer, Star Wars) as well.  We do not make a meal of these kinds of books, just an occasional snack.  In the same way that we don’t eat chocolate chip cookies every day.  Use your best judgment.

To understand what a living book is, or how to discern one takes time.  It never hurts to start with books that are considered classics and adored by generation after generation.  Talk to other parents, visit websites with lists of incredible books.  Places to start are the websites like Simply Charlotte Mason and Ambleside Online.  Use amazon.com to find books.  If you have the title of one book your family enjoyed, type it in and see what amazon recommends.

Eventually, you will be a pro at discovering living books on your own!

5 thoughts on “What are living books?

  1. Kris says:

    Living books are a hard part for me to discern in this way of teaching without reading every single one ahead of time. Since we’re new at this I’ve been relying on lists from other CMers. But then again its all up to the family and what works for them right? We picked up Door in the Wall to read and my first thought was ‘this thing is tiny! A babyish book’ Yet Amazon bills it as a young adult/gr 4-8 book. We are enjoying it immensely. On the other hand, a classic like Little Women was a no brainer for me to read to dd. She dislikes it a great deal. I’m thinking of putting it aside for awhile. Maybe trying again next year. I need to find my copy of Hobbit. We started that in May but put it aside when school ceased. The whole family was enjoying that.

    Thanks for sharing all the quotes from CM. I would love to read her original books but my library doesn’t carry them…

  2. Nancy says:

    Great post and overview of living books. It is especially nice to hear your personal opinion on the topic as each family is different and unique and I’m sure your comments will help someone else in their journey!

  3. Penney Douglas says:

    I was just thinking about the biography idea of studying the life of one man, a short period of time, thereby learning the history of the whole country.

    “Let him, on the contrary, linger pleasantly over the history of a single man, a short period, until he thinks the thoughts of that man, is at home in the ways of that period. Though he is reading and thinking of the lifetime of a single man, he is really getting intimately acquainted with the history of a whole nation for a whole age.” (Vol. 1 Part XVIII)

    We have been studying the U.S. Presidents in that way. A book about each President. I read several about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. I understand the flow of American History so much better since we’ve been doing that! I know now where I got that idea!

  4. Eve says:

    I like how you pointed out that living books don’t have to be “huge” to be worthwhile reading and that you also all enjoy light reading from time to time. Balance and moderation are so important to me, too!

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