Literature {Living Books}

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It is a base waste of time to read a novel that you can skip, or that you look at the last page of to see how it ends. One must read to learn the meaning of life; and we should know in the end, who said what, and on what occasion! The characters in the books we know become our mentors or our warnings, our instructors always; but not if we let our mind behave as a sieve, through which the whole slips like water. It would, of course, be a foolish waste of time to give this sort of careful reading to a novel that has neither literary nor moral worth, and therefore it is well to confine ourselves to the best––to novels that we can read over many times, each time with increased pleasure.


Charlotte Mason put great emphasis on giving children the best books. She was frustrated that so many books were written down to children as if they were incapable of understanding them and were filled with what she called “twaddle”, dumbed down language. I can only imagine what she would say if she walked into the children’s section of a bookstore or public library today!

I think many teachers and parents simply want their children to read that they don’t care much what they are reading, but WHAT they read is so very important for their intellectual and moral growth. When we first began using the booklists from Ambleside Online, I did not believe my children were capable of reading such advanced literature. It seemed light years ahead of what they had been reading (Magic Tree House, A to Z Mysteries). I was wrong. When my seven year old started reading the unabridged version of Pilgrim’s Progress, I was completely blown away by his comprehension. I had begun reading it myself on the kindle and it has some pretty complex language. He understood perfectly. Once I realized he was capable of reading the original classics (not children’s versions) I threw out half the books we owned and stopped going to the library.

There is such an epidemic of illiteracy in America today and it is inexcusable. Children are being set in front of television, given video games and ipad games to play and when they are offered a book it’s something like Captain Underpants or Diary of a Wimpy Kid. So called “literacy experts” have recommended reading lists that are full of twaddle.

One of my favorite books The Story Killers by Terrence O Moore, talks about the serious decline of literature in American education. One of the interesting facts he states in his book is that the time in American history when there was almost 100% literacy was Colonial Massachusetts. He suggests the reason for this high literacy rate is because of the literature the read, the Bible and Plutarch’s Lives. The Bible is an extremely complex and multi-layered literary work. Plutarch was read by fifteen-year-old boys and was considered the primer for the Founding Father’s.

Moore gives a great example for comparing literature we read today with those who came before us. He suggests giving a fifteen-year-old a copy of Plutarch’s life of Caesar to read and see how he does with it. Or compare today’s news articles with those from Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette and The Federalist. Those were things the average person could read. He suggests if you want to know what advanced readers were capable of, read a work from Cicero, in Latin.

Moore also suggests that the decline of literacy in America is because “schools have not given the students anything worth reading nor taught them how to appreciate things that are lovely, dark and deep. Their minds and souls lie dormant.” Of course the public school’s current solution with the “Common Core” curriculum is to read more informational texts rather than high quality literature. Moore’s book is the best I’ve seen for tearing apart this argument as completely baseless and nonsensical. All children really need to do is read the classics. When they start in grade 1 reading Peter Pan, and Pinocchio, then go on to Pilgrim’s Progress and Robin Hood in grade 2, by 6th grade they are reading the Hobbit and the Iliad with no trouble because they started young. However, if those children instead read children’s classic versions (which omit all the beautiful language) and chapter book twaddle (which offer nothing educational whatsoever), they will in no way be prepared to read the heavier books as they grow up.

This is one reason we have selected the Ambleside Online curriculum. It gives children an incredible literary foundation that prepares them to self-educate and to love learning. To read more about living books, click here. One of my favorite “tests” to determine a living book is found in the Simply Charlotte Mason Learning & Living DVD guide. She suggests you choose a subject, select several books by different authors and read the first page from each. She uses an example of Abraham Lincoln and lists the text from the first page of four different books. I don’t want to plagiarize her handout but if you really want an “aha!” moment, do yourself a favor, look up these four books from the library and read the first pages of each, it will be very clear which one of these is a living book (Who Was Abraham Lincoln, Janet Pascal; Abraham Lincoln: A Great President, A Great American, Violet Findley; Abraham Lincoln: America’s 16th President, Steven Otfinoski; Abraham Lincoln, Ingri & Edgar Parin d’Aulaire).

A living book paints a picture in your mind, you can see what is being described. While facts and dates may be included, they aren’t included on the first page and are merely mentioned in passing, so that you feel you are stepping into a story rather than cramming for an exam. Living books use beautiful complex language rather than the short, choppy sentences you find in most early reader books. If there are pictures, they are beautiful illustrations that help bring the story to life (think Beatrix Potter). Children’s living books are written to children not written down to them (think original Winnie the Pooh versus Disney’s Winnie the Pooh).

In my opinion, literature is the most important component of an education and every subject can be learned through the right book. I have literally felt my mind and soul expand as I have read these great works for the first time with my children. I am so excited for the education they are able to receive and so excited to learn alongside them.

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