Toward a Definition of a Living Book

by Colleen Manning

One of my goals as a parent is to pass on to my children a love for reading and for learning. When I began educating our daughters at home, I searched for great books to read with them. Then I found an article about Charlotte Mason, who originated a term for the kind of books children need: living books. In the article, these books were described as "whole books," firsthand sources, classics, books that display "imagination, originality, and the 'human touch.'" 1

My curiosity led me to investigate Miss Mason's philosophy in more detail. In our home school, I began implementing her methods, such as reading from good books and asking the children to narrate to me what they learned. Yet one question was not easily answered: which books are the living books, the best books?

Charlotte Mason did not give us a list of the hundred best books, nor did she compose a checklist of what to look for in a living book. She did drop clues for the careful reader, however. This passage contains some nuggets of truth about the best books.

"For the children? They must grow up upon the best . . . There is never a time when they are unequal to worthy thoughts, well put; inspiring tales, well told. Let Blake's 'Songs of Innocence' represent their standard in poetry DeFoe and Stevenson, in prose; and we shall train a race of readers who will demand literature--that is, the fit and beautiful expression of inspiring ideas and pictures of life." 2

I see two marks of living books in that passage. First, she emphasized "the fit and beautiful expression." The tales are "well put" and "well told." These words describe the mark of high literary quality.

When we think of books that meet this description, we might think primarily of fiction. I have seen several definitions stating that living books are in "story form." Let's remember, however, that Miss Mason also insisted on literary quality in the nonfiction books used in her schools, books on history, geography, nature, religion or science. 3

Secondly, notice that these books contain "worthy thoughts," "inspiring tales," and "inspiring ideas and pictures of life." The second mark of a living book is found in the content--the ideas of the book. Ideas are sparks of truth passed from a great thinker to another mind.

Charlotte Mason taught that these ideas are food for the child's mind.

class="center">"Education is a life. That life is sustained on ideas. Ideas are of spiritual origin, and God has made us so that we get them chiefly as we convey them to one another, whether by word of mouth, written page, Scripture word, musical symphony but we must sustain a child's inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food." 4

I was inspired by reading her words, but my understanding of what she meant by "ideas" was vague and incomplete. For a time, I thought that any well-written book that showed what life was like during a historical period or that emphasized righteous character must contain the ideas my children needed. The result? They read many inspiring tales, but gained very little knowledge.

Then, I read A Philosophy of Education from cover to cover. In this book, Miss Mason presented knowledge as the true motivation for education. 5 In the second half of the book, she used the need of human beings for knowledge as the rationale for her entire curriculum.

"As I have said, knowledge, that is, roughly, ideas clothed upon with facts, is  the proper pabulum for mind. This food a child requires in large quantities and in great variety. The wide syllabus I have in view is intended in every point to meet some particular demand of the mind." 6

As I read her descriptions of that wide syllabus, I realized that the food needed by my children was knowledge--not a haphazard accumulation of any knowledge that interested them, but a disciplined, well-planned intake of "the enormous field of knowledge to which a child ought to be introduced in right of his human nature." 7 I began to look for living books that were not only of high literary quality, but that also communicated important knowledge about a given subject matter. This led to greater variety in our reading--more nonfiction, especially biography, science, nature and geography.

Besides giving us the two marks of living books, Charlotte Mason also wrote about two results caused by a living book. First, the response of children will tell us much about a book. Children will show a delight, an interest in a living book. This delight will arise from the experience of receiving those sparks of truth from the author. 8

One caution is in order when looking at a child's response to a book: delight or interest isn't always stimulated by living ideas. In other words, what a child likes isn't always what he needs. Miss Mason pointed out, "That children like feeble and tedious...story books, does not at all prove that these are wholesome food; they like lollipops but cannot live upon them." 9

The second result will be seen if the book has made a lasting impact on the child's mind: he will be able to tell you clearly what he has read. Charlotte called this "narration." This is a natural result of a living book full of living knowledge. Miss Mason's students were able to narrate at examination time about a book they had read. If a large number of students could not, she concluded that the book was "the wrong book." 10

As parents and educators, we have a responsibility to find books for our students that will both delight and make lasting impressions on their minds. As Charlotte Mason wrote,

"Our business is to give him mind-stuff, and both quality and quantity are essential. Naturally, each of us possesses this mind-stuff only in limited measure, but we know where to procure it; for the best thought the world possesses is stored in books; we must open books to children, the best books; our own concern is abundant provision and orderly serving." 11

These questions, drawn from my study of the marks and results of living books, may be helpful in evaluating the worth of a book:

    1. Is the writing of excellent quality?
    2. Does it contain living ideas and knowledge suitable for the child?
    3. Does the child react with delight caused by the spark of ideas?
    4. Does it make an impact on the reader's mind (shown by his narrations)?

My definition of a living book has changed as I read more of Charlotte Mason's writings. I encourage those of you reading this to study the books and articles she left for us. You will glean much more wisdom than I can share in this article. You will also find she mentions many books that she deemed worthy. Read these books if you can find them. They are shining examples of the kind of book you can call "living."

For further reading, Leah Delsignore also posted a definition, based on quotes from the CM Series, about what makes a living book. Read that below.

1 Karen Andreola, The Charlotte Mason Method, Practical Homeschooling #6, 1994.

2 Charlotte Mason, Parents and Children, p. 263.

3 "I do not hesitate to say that the whole of a child's instruction should be conveyed through the best literary medium available. His history books should be written with the lucidity, concentration, personal conviction, directness, and admirable simplicity which characterizes a work of literary calibre," Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, p. 339.

4 Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, p. 109.

5 Ibid., pp. 88-90.

6 Ibid., p. 256.

7 Ibid., p. 253.

8 "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," Charlotte Mason, School Education, p. 178.

9 Charlotte Mason, A Philosophy of Education, p. 117.

10 "After the experience of over a quarter of a century in selecting the lesson books proper to children of all ages, we still make mistakes, and the next examination paper discovers the error! Children cannot answer questions set on the wrong book," Ibid., p. 248.

11 Ibid., p. 26.

Recommended reading:

Mason, Charlotte. Vol. 5, Formation of Character (Tyndale House Publishers, 1989).
    Part III, Chapter I, "Concerning the Schoolboy and Schoolgirl," especially the sections called Home Culture--Books, Reading Aloud, The Book for the Evening Lecture, and Poetry as a Means of Culture.

Mason, Charlotte. Vol. 6, A Philosophy of Education (Tyndale House Publishers, 1989).
   Book I, Chapter I, "Self-Education."
   Book I, Chapter II, "Children are Born Persons."
   Book I, Chapter V, "The Sacredness of Personality" (on knowledge being the proper motivation for learning).
   Book II, Chapter I, "A Liberal Education in Elementary Schools."

Mason, Charlotte. "Schoolbooks and How They Make for Education." Parents Review. 1900:11.

In the book In Memoriam, written by various people who knew Charlotte Mason, the Hon. Mrs. Franklin (who worked with CM in her PNEU schools) wrote to Charlotte Mason's students, "All the books you use in the School are worth while--even the books used in IA" [first grade] "are worth keeping. I expect you find when you have read Scott and Kingsley, for example, you do not much care for rubbishy books. This is a good thing because rubbish is badly written and spoils our knowledge of English and also it does not give us a true picture of life. Good books on the other hand help us to understand life, as great writers make their characters act as human beings do act and so help us to know something of life from different aspects."

Also recommended: Wendi Capehart's article about using literature to build character.

Christine has written a blog post that does a good job explaining what a living book is.

If you have the Charlotte Mason Series, you might be interested in these quotes:

Chapter 15 (XV) of Volume 3: School Education.

The question resolves itself into--What manner of book will find its way with upheaving effect into the mind of an intelligent boy or girl? We need not ask what the girl or boy likes. She very often likes the twaddle of goody-goody story books, he likes condiments, highly-spiced tales of adventure. 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. page 168

And in Chapter 16 (XVI) of the same volume: How to Use School-Books

Principles on which to select School-Books

I venture to propose one or two principles in the matter of school-books, and shall leave the far more difficult part, the application of those principles, to the reader. For example, I think we owe it to children to let them dig their knowledge, of whatever subject, for themselves out of the fit book; and this is for two reasons: What a child digs for is his own possession; what is poured into his ear, like the idle song of a pleasant singer, floats out as lightly as it came in, and is rarely assimilated. I do not mean to say that the lecture and the oral lesson are without their uses; but these uses are, to give impulse and to order knowledge; and not to convey knowledge, or to afford us that part of our education which comes of fit knowledge, fitly given.

Again, as I have already said, ideas must reach us directly from the mind of the thinker, and it is chiefly by means of the books they have written that we get into touch with the best minds. (page 177)

Marks of a Fit Book--A fit book is not necessarily a big book. Again, we need not always insist that a book should be written by the original thinker. It sometimes happens that second-rate minds have assimilated the matter in hand, and are able to give out what is their own thought (only because they have made it their own) in a form more suitable for our purposes than that of the first-hand thinkers. (page 178).

I get from this that living books:

-would not be goody-goody stories (twaddle), nor highly-spiced adventure stories (condiments).
-they would be books that feed the spirit in some way: thought, feeling, soul.
-children will need to "dig" a bit for their knowledge
-so the books would not be dumbed-down or a distillation of ideas
-the books would need to be written by a "thinker"
-not necessarily big, not necessarily the original thinker.

[Some 'living books' curricula have different criteria]. They want books that will engage children, books that illuminate a historical period in time, books that they can sell (currently in print). There might not be much about the historical period, but enough to give a feeling of it. Many of the stories are good, but I don't know how many you could say feed the spirit (a higher standard).


This quote gives an idea of a non-living book -- what Charlotte Mason would have called "twaddle."

"Entirely pleased with themselves, they offered the child books that represented themselves, with all their attributes thrown in, their practical sense, their science, their hypocrisy, and their ankylosis. They offered him books that oozed boredom, that were likely to make him detest wisdom forever; silly books and empty books, pedantic books and heavy books; books that paralyzed the spontaneous forces of his soul; absurd books by tens and by hundreds, falling like hail on the springtime. The sooner they stifled a young heart, the sooner they effaced from a young spirit the sense of freedom and pleasure in play; the sooner they imposed limits, rules, and constraints, the more men were pleased with themselves for having raised childhood without delay to their own state of supreme perfection." -- Quote from "Books, Children and Men," by Paul Hazard, translated by Marguerite Mitchell.

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