Monday, February 20, 2017

Our Books, Our Teachers

In Ourselves, Charlotte Mason discusses the role of conscience in our lives. Without question, the conscience needs instruction. But how is it to be instructed? “Life brings us many lessons––when we see others do well, conscience approves and learns; when others do ill, conscience condemns. But we want a wider range of knowledge than the life about us affords, and books are our best teachers. (Book II, p. 9)

In the reading of many and various worthy books, not only are our intellects informed, but our moral development grows. Living books--the Bible, Plutarch, history, biography, poetry, drama, essays, and novels all contribute. I have learned life by reading from these rich sources. Some of the ideas encountered in books are new, intriguing, others shape and strengthen opinions and knowledge. Most good books provide food of all kinds and feed me on many levels. Regardless, much intentional learning occurs, and sometimes accidental information is discovered.

“There is no nice shade of conduct which is not described or exemplified in the vast treasure-house of literature. History and biography are full of instruction in righteousness; but what is properly called literature, that is, poetry, essays, the drama, and novels, is perhaps the most useful for our moral instruction, because the authors bring their insight to bear in a way they would hesitate to employ when writing about actual persons. Autobiographies, again, often lift the veil, for the writer may make free with himself…” (Book II, p. 9)

I especially love the surprises of incidental tidbits encountered when reading for another purpose. It’s similar to the surprise of finding an unexpected wad of cash in a pocket, filling inside a cupcake, or a treasure under the clods of earth when turning the garden soil.

Last month I read the first autobiography of Rumer Godden, a favorite author. The personal acquaintance of an author made through their autobiography is particularly appealing to me. After coming to know some ideas and characters and plots of several books by the same author, one feels a kinship with that author, and reading their own account of their childhood and adult experiences is almost as good as being invited to their home for a chat. The knowledge revealed brings a new intimacy. In A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep I was captivated by her colorful years in India and the firsthand accounts of life through both world wars. It is no wonder that her writing is so vivid, as her real life was packed with more adventure than most of the people she invented. It was fascinating to read what was going on in her life while the fictional characters were coming to life under her pen.

But then, during her solitude and isolation in the Second World War, separated from her husband and family, a single mother struggling for survival in remote Cashmere, India, she realizes that her growing girls need formal schooling. Imagine my delight to read that Charlotte Mason came into her life and the life of her children. Godden’s mother signed her up to receive a programme from the P.N.E.U. I squealed with excitement to have a living connection with an author whom I know, but who will never know me.

“May, 1943…’Mam has made me a member of the P.N.E.U., the Parents National Education Union, which sends material out each month, not only a good help, but a lifeline for me. With every set of lessons they send literature, poems and extracts, well chosen, and also a brief study of an artist, say Michelangelo, with a pack of reproductions, which I value. Part of the P.N.E.U. method—a most valuable part—is “telling back,” which not only trains the memory, but makes for concentration. They claim that students trained this way never have to take notes at a lecture, they can remember it.

‘The method is to read the children a short passage in, say history, discuss it, read it again more slowly, then say to one of them, ‘Now, tell that back to me.’ It requires effort and, quite often, they were unwilling to do it…”

Then she recounts an incident after reading 22 lines of a poem three times through and receiving no narration from the students:

“'You weren’t listening.’ But somebody was. From under the table came a little piping voice which said the poem right through! Paula, at five years old.”

This account tickled me, but also reinforced an idea that was probably a continual frustration in Mason’s day, as it is in ours: the misunderstanding of the method. Godden received notes from the P.N.E.U., but clearly had not read Mason’s books herself, understood only sketchy ideas, or she would have known that “only a single reading is required.”

At any rate, I immediately knew I must share this with my readers. Do enjoy some of Godden’s stories. They are worth reading. They will bring pleasure, instruction, and wisdom, exactly as reading Mason herself does.

For the joy of reading,


Monday, February 13, 2017

Books I Finished reading in January 2017

I plan to continue posting my monthly list of books I finished the previous month and apologize for being a bit behind in doing so—not a good habit to start off a new year. Alas, travel and illness interfere with the best laid plans.

I have embarked on several lengthy and weighty tomes that will take me several months to complete, but one begun last fall wound up in January and is listed here.

1. The Four Dolls by Rumer Godden

When I was a little girl, I not only had an assortment of dolls whom I loved and cared for most diligently, but I adored stories about dolls and other little girls with dolls. One of these stories enchanted me, the author and title long forgotten, and I occasionally pick up a story about a doll to see if it might be that story. Thus, I decided on this one, as well as because I have only read Godden’s adult novels. This collection of doll stories is diverse—different kinds of dolls, children, and settings, but all delightful and exquisitely reminiscent of childhood fears, ambitions, and pranks.

2. A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep by Rumer Godden

I like to have a biography going all the time and enjoyed reading this first of Godden’s autobiographies while simultaneously reading one of her children’s books. This must rank in my all-time favorite autobiographies. Godden’s life is colorful and full of fortune and misfortune, triumphs and tragedies, and was written in her usual perfection of description and expression. I admired especially her ability to make the most of any circumstance by sheer willpower, creativity, ingenuity, and humor. In an era overpoweringly deluged with memoirs, this one stands out above the rest.

3. Best American Science Writing, 2003 ed. Oliver Sacks

Finding myself at a loss for a new science title to stretch my knowledge, I picked up this volume of 25 top writers in the field of science. Oliver Sacks is already one of my favorite science writers, so I was fascinated by his choices for best science writing. My ultimate goal was to discover names of authors I could then pursue to take me down some scientific trails and am now stocked thanks to these various and fascinating articles on subjects from zoology and oceanography to bioethics and physics.

4. Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

There is nothing better than winter days with a new (to me) title by a favorite author. Mary Barton is a heroine who is far from perfect, but through willfulness and misjudgment rises to heroic heights of effort in a tense and exciting conclusion. I think this a good choice for teen-aged girls especially who are wrestling with family relationships, use of their talents, and finding their own moral compass.

5. Plato’s Republic. Ed. Jowett

I read this volume 15 years ago and felt like a first-time sailor put in charge of a voyage. I took a few impressions away, but thought returning to it after intervening years of further reading might help me make more sense of it. Though I get a bit annoyed at Socrates’ seeming disingenuous questioning technique, I did admire the Greeks’ efforts to grapple with the topics of justice, knowledge, class, and true nobility.

For the joy of reading,


Monday, January 30, 2017

Re-post: What's In a Living Book, or, Why We Collect the Books We Do

This is a third re-post of an article intended to explain the fundamentals of what a living book is. Emily’s description provides an acronym to help you learn the criteria and guide your discernment:

Over the past few weeks I've been helping a friend choose books for a comprehensive science curriculum she is writing, a science curriculum depending almost entirely on living books for elementary through middle school. She had been checking out books to preview during her Living Books Library visits and then scouring the internet and public library to find good living books for other topics. Finally, I suggested she just come and work in the library so she could find and preview the entire section all at once. After agreeing that that was indeed the best way to proceed her only complaint was, "There are just too many good books to choose from!"

Yes, she has found some good books in the public library, and others that are still in print, but the quantity of good, well-written, engaging and informative books available beyond those in our library's collection is just a small percentage of what is readily available. The books we collect and preserve, though most were written before 1970 (and are considered "out-of-date" by the school libraries that discarded them), are still the best options for all but the newest technological topics. Why is that?

The content hasn't greatly changed, that's why books written in the 1950s and 60s are still relevant for today's students, but the manner in which that content is presented has been completely overhauled. For an example of how this looks in science books, refer to this post. What is missing are the characteristics that make a book what we call "living."

Last month mom and I traveled to Charlotte, NC and led a two-day seminar on using living books as the basis of a curriculum. Of course, we needed to define our terms first and I came up with the following points to illustrate what we mean when we say a book is a "living book." Since acronyms are helpful, I'm using "L-I-V-I-N-G" to describe these six qualities.

When the language itself is worthy of notice, the words are so perfectly chosen, the mind takes hold and images are created—true literary power. Charlotte Mason said that a book without literary power was like having beautiful pictures painted that you could not see because your eyes were covered or being introduced to people who do not live and act in your thoughts—lack of literary power is crippling for our intellect because it lacks the “Beauty Sense.”
“We do not mean by a book any printed matter in a binding, but a work possessing certain literary qualities able to bring that sensible delight to the reader which belongs to a literary word fitly spoken. It is a sad fact that we are losing our joy in literary form. We are in such haste to be instructed by facts or titillated by theories, that we have no leisure to linger over the mere putting of a thought. But this is our error, for words are mighty both to delight and to inspire. If we were not as blind as bats, we should long ago have discovered a truth very fully indicated in the Bible––that that which is once said with perfect fitness can never be said again, and becomes ever thereafter a living power in the world.” (Charlotte Mason, "Parents and Children" pg. 263)

Living ideas capture the imagination by planting a seed that germinates in the mind, causing one to continue to wonder and ponder it, and to pursue further knowledge about the subject. There are so many books full of living ideas, and what is even more wonderful is that different ideas in the same book grab hold of each of us in different ways. What one child grasps, another might overlook in favor of a different idea.

My younger brother on a nature walk one day said quite solemnly, “I wonder what’s underneath my feet.” This may not seem like that great a notion, but for him it was an indication of an expanding of his mind, considering something he had never before given thought of. This showed us that a great idea from Charles Kingsley’s Madame How and Lady Why had been working on his soul. I’m sure you all have experienced something similar with your own children. This is what Mason was talking about when she said children must be put in direct contact with living thought without a teacher standing in between the child and the book. The living thoughts are those living ideas found in the best books.

Living books are those that exemplify virtuous living. The characters, like us, struggle to make the right decision, but ultimately do, or dire consequences occur. Consider how much deeper an impression reading about Sara Crewe's self-denial when confronted with an even poorer beggar girl would make on a student compared to a lecture they heard from us about being generous. Our children will readily identify with Sara as she struggled to do the right thing, and their hearts will be enlarged as they contemplate what it would feel like to be terribly hungry yet give one's food to another who was truly starving.

Characters don’t always make the right choice or emulate virtue in every circumstance. Take Pinocchio for example. His exploits are mostly disastrous as he pursues his own desires. This type of living example can also be instructive for the reader as his bad decisions result in great consequences. And after struggling with him, we are overjoyed when he finally chooses the harder path to serve and love another above himself.

Living books are inspiring when the author is passionate about their subject and they transmit that passion to the reader. This is a major reason why textbooks are not living—they are written by multiple authors or committees whose members may be individually passionate but that gets lost in the collaboration on the text. A passionate author does not water down or pre-digest their subject as they write it for the reader, they want to pass on their own knowledge and do it in such a way that their interests become ours.

Take Carry On, Mr. Bowditch for an example. Jean Lee Latham approached her publisher with the intent of writing a biography of the early American navigator who transformed the world of shipping with his love of mathematics and innovation in calculating longitude. Her publisher looked at Ms. Latham with incredulity and said she must be kidding. There was no way to make this guy interesting for young readers.

The result of her labor won the Newbery Medal, has been continuously in print for 60 years, and was so riveting that I couldn’t put it down the first time I read it (and I always listened in when I heard my mom read it separately to my two younger brothers). Her passion leaps off the page as she gives us the inspiring example of Nat who loved learning but had to teach himself when he was indentured. In fact, my brother is reading Newton’s Principia because that is how Mr. Bowditch taught himself Latin!

When we think of books that are narrative we think “books told like a story.” This is indeed the case of many excellent living books, both fiction as well as non-fiction. We often find the subject of a biography is written like the main character in their own story. However, for a book to be narrative it doesn't always take this form. The use of wonderful language and imagery can evoke such vivid pictures in our mind’s eye that we see what is being described and understand it better than if all the facts were just listed. Charlotte Mason said living books put the flesh on the dry bones of facts, and the narrative quality of a book does just that.

One sure test to determine if a book is living is if the text can be NARRATED. When narrative quality is present we are able to comprehend, organize the material we just took in, and relate previous knowledge and experience to it, and then are able to tell others about what we read or heard. If a book can’t be narrated well, it’s not living. (One caveat here—sometimes it takes a bit of time for us to be able to narrate a book as we have to chew on it, digest it, ponder and consider it before we can describe our thoughts to someone else; that’s not what I mean when I say a book truly can’t be narrated) Narrative books make us feel like we have had the actual experience being described even though we never have had that experience “in real life.”

Finally, living books are generational because they are enjoyed over and over throughout life and from one generation to the next. Most classics got to be called such because they have been enjoyed by people over and over throughout history. They speak to us because they contain a bit of the truth of the human condition, and so different details like dress and technology don’t stand in the way. The essential truth conveyed in the ideas remains ever relevant to us.

CS Lewis wrote several great essays about this concept in his book Of Other Worlds. He said, “No book is really worth reading at the age of 10 which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of 50—except of course books of information. The only imaginative works we ought to grow out of are those which it would have been better not to have read at all.”

All of these six tests of a living book can be distilled into the one overarching principle: Living Books capture our imaginations. We are changed and moved by these books so that after reading one, we are never exactly the same again. These are the criteria we use in our collection, and why the books in our science section are still wonderful though they may be stamped "obsolete" or "out-of-date." Your students will think the same.

Happy reading,