Give Them the Very Best: Living Books

The discussion of Living Books is often synonymous with a Charlotte Mason education.
And, books that are alive are vital for an education that is living.

But for many of us, the subject of living books (and especially how to find them!)
is more abstract than practical.
And, for all of us an understanding of living books develops
over time and through practice in choosing and reading the very best of books. 
The journey towards a developed taste and passion for living books is valuable
 and the more that we seek out the "very best" in books,
the more our taste is bred towards them, and this is a journey that never comes to an end.

 We never "arrive" at a perfect understanding of living books,
 but instead we continue to grow and develop an appetite for, and an ability to spot,
 the best quality of living books for a lifetime. 

 Living Books     

What is a living book?

Because this term has become synonymous Charlotte Mason, you will find no lack of definitions available for it, and you will also find that not everyone agrees about exactly what qualifies, or doesn't, as a living book. When ideas become viral, they are often misunderstood and it can be confusing to reach a conclusion.

The best place to understand what is true about a living book is within the words spoken by Mason herself. This is my definition of a living book, based on what I find in Mason's volumes: 

A living book is a book filled with inspiring ideas, written by one author who is passionate about the subject, and whose passion permeates writing that is filled with both quality language and timeless truths.

       I think that the most foreign thing that slowly grows within our understanding about living books, is that they are filled from cover to cover with ideas, not facts. For the most practically minded among us, the concept of ideas, instead of facts, can be abstract and difficult to grasp.

What are ideas? 

Ideas inspire, while facts inform.
Ideas form connections with other ideas, while facts stand alone.
Ideas are digested, while facts are merely chewed over in the moment.
Ideas are the flesh upon the dry bones of factual information.
This does not mean that living books will not contain factual information, but this information won't be presented in a rote, bulleted, dated, list. This information will not be presented on it's own, but rather with, and among, the other information that it is connected to, and that gives it significance.  

To know that the Egyptians crossed the Red Sea after their Exodus from Egypt sometime between 1525 and 1270 BC is a fact. To read about the Exodus AND the Shang Dynasty in China that occurred at the same point in history, gives ideas. To know George Washington's birthday and the names of his parents are facts. To read about the perseverance and ingenuity he displayed during the crossing of the Delaware on Christmas night, gives ideas.

Living Books contain ideas, because ideas are living.
The mind feeds upon ideas, so when searching for a book that will nourish the minds
of born persons before us, we must seek out ideas. 

What else are we searching for? 
These qualities of a living book give something to commit to memory, something by which to measure the quality of a book, and a discussion about the various aspects of a living book, which can be present in each book in varying measure. 



When you hold a living book up next to twaddle, with no expertise whatsoever, you can tell the difference. Living authors, as a general rule, choose living illustrators. The words, ideas, thoughts, drawings, and stories within the pages of living books are all lovely. They impart loveliness to our days, and they leave us feeling fuller, richer, and more joyful. A living book is one that is remembered, delighted in by all ages, and discussed throughout the days and weeks following the reading. A living book will appeal to your God given desire for truth, goodness, and beauty.


Living books display insight regarding the subject that goes beyond just a presentation of fact. Insight involves personal experience, passion, and a depth of thought regarding every aspect of the subject at hand. This personal experience is possible because the author is passionate about, and has a desire to truly know and understand, that which she writes and presents to readers. The gift of a living book is a perspective, and insight, that is only available from that author, about that subject, at that time. We do not seek information from a living book. Mason said that it can not be too often said that information is NOT education. Instead, we seek to be invited into the hearts and minds of people gifted with passions and perspectives different from our own.


The ideas presented in a living book may only directly address one subject or topic, but they abundantly prove the science of relations, by leading to and bringing to remembrance the truth, goodness,and beauty of other subjects read about, or experienced. A vast variety of topics, subjects, and Grand Conversations come out of the pages of a living book. The gift of living ideas is one that keeps on giving. A living book is a display of connections between all things, and much more importantly, the spiritual sacredness of all things-whether it be science, math, or music. All things point to other things, and all things point to God.


Reading a living book will inspire great ideas, honorable action, a variety of connections, and the pursuit of virtue. The very essence of being living is that the words on the page contribute to life. This happens in the moments following the reading, as someone exclaims "Oh! That gives me the greatest idea", and also in days and weeks to come, when children are reminded of the adventures of their favorite characters, or see their favorite art on the walls of public places.


Living books make their mark on the lives of the readers, and on the world. The stories, persons, and adventures are like life long friends that form the very character of the partakers of their ideas and wisdom. They do not do this in a moralizing, or trivial way, through trite lessons presented to "simple minds" who must be taught what to think. Rather, a living book is a gift that keeps giving, read time and time again, and more importantly remembered for a lifetime. Each reading, and each memory of the beloved story, gives a person a new depth of understanding, or brings to light a new aspect of the character or story. Reading about the lives of people displays for us the results of choices, and the elements of human thought and emotion. We do not have to be told what lesson to take from a living story, but rather take what we need as we digest, relate to, love, and delight in stories and as we form relationships with real and fictional people of the past and present.


Living books stand the test of time. A living book can be set in any time period, and contain elements relevant solely to that time period, and yet still be enjoyed by readers for centuries. A living book contains, and gifts us, with truths that are truly timeless, and that apply to hearts and lives, regardless of current technology or culture. Ideas and knowledge gained from the cultural, or historical, content of a book is valuable, without a doubt. However, even more valuable is the truth that nourishes the soul, no matter when and in what culture, a person happens to exist.

If living books are what we seek, then twaddle is what we avoid.
Mason didn't create the term, and in fact it is an English word meaning "trivial and foolish"

Just as living books can be misunderstood and misrepresented, Twaddle is often a label put upon any book that isn't living. There are many categories of books, however, and every book that is less than desirable isn't necessarily twaddle. Twaddle, however, is prevalent and readily available, and it helps to have a good understanding of what is is and why we would want to avoid it. 

 In order to know how to give them the best, we must know how to recognize what is less than.



Twaddle is foolish, and this foolishness often makes it less than desirable. We mustn't mistake silliness for foolishness. Silly does not indicate twaddle, and several living authors delight readers with silly and humorous rhymes and stories. Foolishness, however, is void of ideas, empty of virtue, and often inspire negative thoughts and reactions.


Twaddle doesn't display a power of language, but rather a weakness of writing. Twaddle isn't timeless, because it isn't well written and doesn't contain the brilliance of a gifted and insightful author. A book that is not living will never stand the test of time, and doesn't leave a reader inspired to greatness.


Abridged writings, or writing that has been simplified, is twaddle. Great ideas, and beautifully written stories capture the curiosity and heart of adults and children alike, even amidst language that isn't always fully understood. There are retellings (like of Shakespeare) that take difficult to translate words and language and present it to children in a format that has not lost its power. However, all adapted stories that have taken the brilliant writing of inspired authors and dissected it, under the assumption that children need simple vocabulary and silly illustrations in order to delight in goodness, are twaddle. Children should never be underestimated, and we should always consider them worthy of the best.

D-Dumbed Down

A book doesn't have to be abridged, or adapted, to be dumbed down. Far too often, books are written AT children, instead of TO children. If we respect our children as born persons, and if we believe that they are worthy of the best, then we should require that all authors invited into their lives give them the same respect. A child doesn't need a mini, simple, or "young" version of great truths and big ideas. A child is in need of truth. A child is in need of goodness. A child is in need of beauty. Every author that is worth their time will see this need of upmost importance.


A book considered twaddle will not delight a child. Sure, there is temporary pleasure in a beloved cartoon character, and most children have those. However, true delight occurs when stories are living, and twaddle fails to deliver this phenomenon. Books that are rote, filled with lists of facts, too simple, dry, or just plain boring are not living (and often they are twaddle) and there is always a better alternative. Any time spent bored, or in drudgery, is time wasted. The world is teeming with living, delightful books and we will never have time to read them all. 


The depth present in living books is contrasted sharply by the shallow words of twaddle, that tend to be short lived, both in impact and in remembrance. A living book will cause you to stop, and think, and most living books have to be read slowly and deliberately to be digested (reading slowly is ideal) whereas many books that can be flown through rapidly are twaddle.
Not all light reading is necessarily twaddle, but all twaddle is most definitely light, and lacking depth.


The words of twaddle carry no long term, or permanent significance. They don't change hearts, minds, or the world. They don't form characters, or inform worldviews. They don't inspire, because they hold nothing within them that can be taken possession of by the reader. The words of a living book become the sought after prize of a person, and because they are full of life themselves, they make fuller the life of the one who now owns them.

Should We "Ever" Read or Allow Twaddle? 
I am often asked about twaddle and whether it is ever "okay"; specifically whether or not we should let our children indulge on small amounts of it, like we let them indulge on brownies and candy.

It can begin to feel like the twaddle police are going to bang upon our door if we don't get it "right" in every moment. They won't, and the truth is, small amounts of twaddle will NOT undo your child's hope of a quality, living education.

But, hear my heart, my friends, and let me encourage you with this: 
Every "yes" is a "no" to something else. 
Every "yes" to twaddle is a "no" to time spent reading books teeming with ideas that will inspire our children and form their moral imaginations.

Will miniscule amounts of twaddle "harm" your child? Who's to say.
But, it certainly won't help them in any way. They may enjoy it, but they enjoy plenty of things that are not best for them, and it is our job to teach them to love what they ought to love. How much twaddle you allow is, quite obviously, up to you and I will never advocate for legalistically following Mason's advice and getting caught up in a spiral of guilt and perfection.

 I do advocate, however, for not taking the easy way out, and for pursuing truth, goodness, and beauty. I advocate for stewarding our time wisely, and for shepherding the hearts of our children. I advocate for being active in ensuring the quality of the feast spread before them. I advocate for fiercely protecting their minds and hearts from anything that is lesser than they need and deserve.

You don't have time, in a lifetime, to read every good thing worth reading.
So, every moment spent reading twaddle is a moment adding to the list of good things that will never be enjoyed. The reason, in my opinion, that Mason staunchly disagreed with ever allowing twaddle for any reason, wasn't because she was admonishing mothers to aim for perfection. It was because we have but a few short years to feast upon ideas with these children of ours, and every moment counts.

Is there grace for twaddle? Of course there is! Is there also room to grow, until we have cultivated good tastes that loves what we ought and doesn't desire the "low hanging fruit" of mindless twaddle? Absolutely. 
So, keep growing. 
Don't beat yourself up about a lack of perfection. 
But, also, don't let yourself off of the hook. 
The transition from twaddle to living books can be a weaning process, and you certainly shouldn't cease to give your children grace. But, you also should never cease to faithfully, actively cultivate their tastes until they desire only good things. 
Keep giving grace. 
Keep cultivating. 
So, my answer to the ever present question of "is twaddle ever okay?" is this: 
"The world is teeming with wonderful books. Who has time for twaddle?". 

 The quality, and impact, of living books becomes more greatly desired the more than we come into contact with them. As we increase the presence of living books, filled with living ideas, in our lives and in our lessons, the result of this increase will be the reward in and of itself. As you pursue the best for your born persons, you will come to seek after living books like the treasure that they are, and in doing so, will be succeeding in offering up courses of lovely, insightful, vast, inspiring, notable, generational words and ideas to be feasted upon by the children that you are bringing up in the way that they should go.

You will quickly find the significance, and truth, of Mason's Great Recognition that the Holy Spirit is the Teacher of all things, and that your role in education is simply to provide the best variety of living books that you can get your hands upon. In doing so, you remove the burden from yourselves to "get it all right", and place the education of your children in the hands of the God that designed them, and the men who He has gifted with wisdom and passion, shared upon countless pages of countless books that can be delightfully feasted upon for a lifetime. 

May All Your Days Be Spent...Delightfully Feasting
Crystin <3

No comments:

Post a Comment