*Adapted from a talk given August 2018
The right books have the ability to inspire and stir the emotions. But that makes us ask, which are the right books? And I don’t want to claim that I have the answer to that question. Someone might compile a list of ‘the hundred best books for school,’ but it won’t be me. But I’d like to give one or two principles to my readers. For one thing, I think it’s important for children to dig for knowledge for themselves from the appropriate books in all their subjects. We owe them that. There are two reasons for this. When a child works and finds something for himself, it’s his for life. But whatever comes too easily from hearing it like a casual song in the air, tends to float out of the mind as easily as it floated in. —Charlotte Mason
I admit I’m no expert in the subject of what makes a book living, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for my 12+ years of homeschooling, and more intently over the last few months, as I continually refine my own philosophy of education and reflect on our homeschooling journey. Long before we had even heard of “living books,” our library already WAS. We have spent 20+ years searching for books in dark alleys in large metropolises, in hole-in-the-wall thrift stores in small towns, off cobble-stoned streets in European cities, even in the “used book capital of the world,” Hay-on-Wye, Wales, where there are dozens of bookstores found around every little corner of the small village. We have bought thousands of books (and have given away thousands of books curating our library) as we’ve gotten older, raised children, converted from Protestantism to Orthodoxy, and, most significantly in the life of our library, as we have learned more about the treasure of living books.
So, what makes a book living? You will hear many varying definitions of what a living book is and that’s because it can be a bit hard to pin down. There is not necessarily one succinct, clear-cut definition. I will briefly list some markers I look for when determining whether a book is worth my child’s and my time.
- One characteristic of a living book is that it is narrative; it tells a story. It doesn’t just list facts, or only give you cut-and-dried information. When you read it aloud to your children, or they read it themselves, can they tell it back to you? If you have a book that is at an appropriate age for your child, and narration from the book is impossible or difficult, it could possibly signal that the book is better left on the shelf.
- Additionally, living books tend to be older books—often written before about 1965. Why before this date? These books generally contain rich language, complex sentence structure, a higher vocabulary, and strong moral values. They call us to higher things without sermonizing. Modern books tend to be (but are not always) watered down in content and dumbed down in language. Short, choppy sentences with little imagination and an overabundance of graphics does not a good book make.
- I agree with C.S. Lewis when he said, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” A living book can be enjoyed by all ages. Have you ever gotten called out by your kids because you’re silently reading ahead in your family read-aloud? When mom or dad can’t put the book down, and the kids are saying, “One more chapter!” you are creating great memories with your family. Living books have a way of becoming a part of your family’s culture because of the shared experiences in reading it.
- Another simple way to determine if a book is living is if it is written by one author, someone who is knowledgeable—an expert perhaps—and passionate about their subject. A textbook committee exists, I think, mostly to drain a book of anything living, leaving only the drudgery of the mundane and the uninteresting. Someone who is passionate about a subject makes other people interested in it, makes them want to learn more about it, and brings it to life in a way that only a living book can.
All of these are useful clues to help us seek out those living gems in the vast mines of our local bookstores and libraries. However, a final, determining factor that I believe is the most important characteristic of a living book goes beyond the mere practical. It actually goes beyond just a definition or a description to the very purpose of a living book. While I think, for utilitarian reasons, it’s important to understand what living books are and how to find them, it’s more important—vital, even, in the truest sense of that word, vitality—to understand WHY living books are important.
Charlotte Mason said, “The best thought the world possesses is stored in books; we must open books to children, the best books….” What do “the best” books give us that other books do not? The best books are those that in their very essence impart living ideas, hence the name living books—not just stating facts, not just giving information. The children will receive those things. Charlotte Mason called knowledge “ideas clothed upon with facts.” So, they will still be getting all the information they would be getting from dry textbooks, but they will be doing it in a way that they can KNOW it, retain it, act upon it, think on it. So, if they’re still getting those facts, then why does it matter HOW they get it?
Well, let’s talk about why we are educating our children. One of my favorite education thinkers is Andrew Kern, classical educator and founder of the Circe Institute. He says that education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on the good, the true, and the beautiful. That is partially why Schola Lending Library has that phrase in Latin as our motto: “Bonitas. Veritas. Pulchritudo.” Goodness. Truth. Beauty.
Ultimately, I believe we all want to raise wise and virtuous children, and we do that by place before them the good, the true, and the beautiful. The Gospel of St. Matthew says, “The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil.” We cannot fill our children with twaddle and expect them to come out wise, virtuous, and profitable for every good work. Goodness, truth, beauty are ideas in themselves, but they are also birthed out of other living things like courage, faithfulness, self-sacrifice, valor, duty, heroism, diligence. Reading about, hearing about, seeing these living ideas again and again in our school books cause those very traits to come alive within us.
But, eventually, those ideas that have become vitalized within them will become a force of motion. They will begin acting out those very ideas, then those actions become habits, and habits, finally, become character—the character of a wise and virtuous person.
So, we serve up to our children the good…then we wait. We must allow the mind the time and opportunity to reflect. Our children need margin in their lives, in their days, to think. Allowing our children to feast on living ideas directly from great minds makes for a short school day. There is no need for oral lessons or lectures or interference from us between the child and his or her books. There is little benefit in time spent on worksheets or pages of math problems. But there is time…and so we wait… “A book serves the ends of education only as it is vital,” Ms. Mason said. Let the child ruminate on the ideas themselves, for “all education is self-education.”
We are raising and educating spiritual beings—children who are made in the image of a living God. They are not just vessels into which we pour information. They are not just mini-me’s onto whom we imprint ourselves. Only living ideas will reach the spirit of our children. Sir Richard Livingstone said: “Nothing—not all the knowledge in the world—educates like the vision of greatness, and nothing can take its place.” Information doesn’t transform us. It’s not acquiring facts that makes us wise and virtuous. Charlotte Mason said, “A person is not built up from without but from within, that is, he is living, and all external education appliances and activities which are intended to mould his character are decorative and not vital.” Again, only living ideas, touching our inner sanctum, will sustain the life of the mind, will quicken the soul. Emily Kiser of A Delectable Education podcast has said, in paraphrasing Ms. Mason, that the aim of living books is not only to make us KNOW, but to make us CARE.
So, when we think about whether a book is living, we can ask, “Is it inspiring the imagination? Is it facilitating connections between this idea and other ideas that the child has already assimilated into their personhood? Is the book calling them to action in some way? Is it cultivating wisdom and virtue? Because all of these work together, you see. If we are wise and virtuous, if we CARE—about ideas, about people, about the kingdom of God—then we are becoming a truly educated person, or paraphrasing Ms. Mason, “qualified for life, not just for earning a living.” Indeed, we are on the path to fulfilling the purpose of our life as Christians—to become partakers of the divine nature.
“Thou hast set my feet in a large room; should be the glad cry of every intelligent soul. Life should be all living, and not merely a tedious passing of time; not all doing or all feeling or all thinking—the strain would be too great—but, all living; that is to say, we should be in touch wherever we go, whatever we hear, whatever we see, with some manner of vital interest. We cannot give the children these interests; we prefer that they should never say they have learned botany or conchology, geology, or astronomy. The question is not,—how much does the youth know when he has finished his education, but how much does he care? And about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? And, therefore, how full is the life he has before him? I know you may bring a horse to the water, but you cannot make him drink. What I complain of is that we do not bring our horse to the water. We give him miserable little textbooks, mere compendiums of facts, which he is to learn off and say and produce at an examination…And all the time we have books, books teeming with ideas fresh from the minds of thinkers upon every subject to which we can wish to introduce children.” -Charlotte Mason
That’s what we’re trying to do here in our little library in a minuscule way. We’re trying to share books—only the best books. If we can help to add living ideas into your children’s days and years, thereby helping to make them more wise and more virtuous, all the work we’ve put into this adventure would be worth it.