In CM’s Words: How to Recognize a High Quality Book

Those of us in the Charlotte Mason club are already comfortable with the basic concept of “twaddle” vs. “living books.” After all, her thirteenth principle states,

“Education is the Science of Relations; that is, that a child has natural relations with a vast number of things and thoughts: so we must train him upon physical exercises, nature, handicrafts, science and art, and upon many living books; for we know that our business is, not to teach him all about anything, but to help him make valid, as many as may be of

‘Those first born affinities,
‘That fit our new existence to existing things.’

After homeschooling with this method over a few years, I couldn’t agree more with this principle. My kids are making new connections every day between all of their subjects and activities, and they are enthusiastic learners! We especially love our books, and I couldn’t be happier with our educational method.

Nevertheless, I have come up with some new questions, and I have started re-reading Mason’s volumes to seek out some answers.

Let’s start with “living books.” On the surface, a living book is simply a high quality book. The challenge becomes defining “high quality.” How did Charlotte Mason determine if a book was high quality? What were her standards? Are her standards still effective in today’s day and age, or do they need updating? Of course, the classics are generally high quality, but does a book really need to be in print for over twenty years in order to be acceptable, or are there other characteristics that we use to make a decision about its worth?

What were Charlotte Mason’s standards? Naturally, it is most helpful to read Charlotte Mason’s volumes directly, and she was not an advocate of summaries. However, we are busy homeschool parents, and sometimes we need help to make decisions before we have a chance to read her excellent words for ourselves. So, I have written a summary for you. Hopefully, it will be enough to inspire you to seek out more information for yourself.

  • Whether the children like the book does not determine its value.
  • The length of the book does not determine its value.
  • Whether a child can read a book for him or herself does not determine its value. Children can comprehend far beyond what they are capable of reading alone.
  • The book has a literary quality that promotes a “sense of joy in the written word.” It doesn’t present facts alone and isn’t “in a hurry”.
  • The book hasn’t been “dumbed down” or brought to a “child’s level.” The child should have to put effort into understanding it.
  • Students and teachers, including exceptional students of all ability levels, find ideas in the book that satisfy their curiosity and encourage them to sustain the effort of attention.
  • While first-hand, original sources tend to be good, it is possible for a very skilled person to write or re-write ideas in a way that is more compelling than the original source. So, allow for this possibility.
  • The ideas in the book are forceful enough to impact the reader/listener and influence their beliefs and choices. There is a noticeable “quickening of the mind” in response to reading it.
  • Children are capable of narrating the book at the time of reading and also for an exam several months later. (“Children cannot answer questions on the wrong book.”)

The final point above can mistakenly lead us to believe that a book is not the right choice if we do not use it appropriately. There is more to the Charlotte Mason method than simply reading the book aloud and having the child narrate it, although that is a long-term goal – to remove the need for the teacher and have the student engage with the text independently. The teacher does have an important role to play in helping students use books effectively. So, the final point needs to be taken with a grain of salt, especially when just beginning a new book.

In Volume 6, Mason writes that students who are accustomed to reading books with these qualities tend to evaluate modern books by the same standards, so I get the impression that as a homeschooling parent, I will also get better at identifying living books over time and with continuous exposure to high quality classic books such as those on our Ambleside Online reading lists.

So, how do these standards fare in our modern world?

There is one weakness in the list of books that we are reading. I can’t quite call it a lack of diversity because there are such a wide variety of subjects and individuals that we are reading about, but it is related to diversity. I have made a few very specific additions to the lists because I didn’t like the ideas that my children were assimilating about Native Americans and Muslims. While the other ideas in the books make them worth continuing to read, I have found that I needed some compelling stories that cast into doubt the stereotypical portrayals of both groups.

I will share a post at a later date about how I handled the problem of my children receiving ideas that I knew to be misguided based on my own life experience and wisdom as an adult. For the purposes of this post, I simply want to point out that as our world is significantly more connected and diverse than that of our classic aut
hors, we may need to actively seek out new books with living qualities that can provide a modern balance. I am still trying to work that idea out.

I can never fit everything I wish to say in a single blog post. I love reading Charlotte Mason because she inspires me to think critically and ask questions. For example, I would like to do a side-by-side comparison of modern book recommendations and Charlotte Mason’s recommendations. I love to be challenged, and I look forward to digging in more deeply into this topic in the future!books

One response to “In CM’s Words: How to Recognize a High Quality Book

  1. Pingback: The Charlotte Mason Method (and Paolo Freire, in brief) | Charlotte Mason Geek·

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