by Suz Stewart
Charlotte Mason was a Victorian educational reformer. One of her biggest contributions to the world of education was the concept of using only “living” books in her classrooms. Many new homeschoolers, and homeschoolers new to Charlotte Mason’s methods, haven’t a clue what a living books is or how to spot one, however. This article will endeavor to rectify that situation.
A living book is defined as any book that is literary in nature. That is, it has the following attributes:
- Engaging, interesting, lively text
- Literary elements – plot, descriptive passages, poetic language
- It has stood the test of time – it’s just as interesting to today’s reader as it was to its original audience
- It has something to say, something to teach – a redeeming quality, a moral, a character builder – it asks something introspective of the reader
Miss Mason referred to books who did not qualify as living titles as “twaddle.” I like to think of them as junk food for the mind, or those friends your mother warned you about. Where Pride and Prejudice is a wonderfully romantic comedy of a classic tale, the latest Harlequin Romance title is just twaddle. Nice to spend an afternoon with, maybe, but not someone you want to take home to meet Mother. The Horatio Hornblower series is definitely living literature for the male of the species. Captain Underpants — pure twaddle. Basal readers qualify as some of the highest order of twaddle, too. If there’s no redeeming qualities to the stories, if there’s no life to the book — it’s a good bet it’s twaddle.
Living literature need not be restricted to merely fiction, either. Science, nature, math and history titles can also qualify. Rachel Carson‘s books, for example, are perfect examples of living nature titles. The Universe and the Teacup finally made me realize just how much math is involved in our everyday lives. And try to tell the millions of devoted fans that Stephen Ambrose or David McCullough write boring, dry history books. While they may not be your “cup of tea,” literary non-fiction is becoming abundantly more available, as authors realize what Charlotte Mason knew a long time ago — interesting books are more fun to read, and fun learning makes for effective learning.
Fun is really the entire point of using living literature in your teaching. Children who are interested in what they are learning will be more receptive and more ready to learn. Children who use interesting texts and stories to learn will enjoy their studies more. When the learning is perceived as an enjoyable experience, the students retain what they are being taught quicker and easier, and with longer-lasting effect. An added benefit is that the better quality prose of living texts exposes your students to beautiful phrases and mental images those phrases and passages induce. All of which goes to serve up an enjoyable, interesting, lively time with the texts.
Life can be found in living books, and living books can add to your life. Living books can add life to your teaching and learning, too.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Suzanne Stewart is a professional freelance writer and marketer, and the author of Homeschooling on the Cheap. She has been homeschooling her children since 2002, using mostly Charlotte Mason’s methods and philosophies. She has studied Charlotte’s writings, as well as others’ works on Charlotte and her ways. She is currently the Charlotte Mason “expert” for the Christian Homeschoolers Taking a Stand blog. She lives just the other side of nowhere in rural WV with her 2 children, 2 dogs, 4 cats, a fish and a hamster. When not writing or homeschooling, she enjoys reading, playing flute and bowed psaltery, tramping across the hills and hollows of home, and practicing the arts and sciences of homemaking and motherhood.