Monday, November 12, 2012

Hard Thinking About Easy Reading

There is a comment I hear frequently from parents in our library which I have pondered quite a bit and wonder what to say when it is used in conversation. I find the response to this question not to be so easy to articulate, but am going to venture out in hopes that some brave and honest souls out there would like to consider some reasons or implications with me. My musings here serve as an introduction to a series on the topic of children reading.

The statement I refer to is usually made when a parent, feeling a bit chagrined at their child's choice of reading material, says, "Well, at least they're reading, right?" I think that last word indicates a need for affirmation. Perhaps there is some argument for helping a newly independent reader to gain confidence and practice by reading books that are below their intellectual ability. Still, the question above prompts further questions in my mind, such as, is the action of reading itself enough? Is reading anything really okay--better than no reading at all? Is the choice of twaddle or drivel outside of lessons helpful? Is reading as a pastime, literally a way of passing the time, healthy?

I probably survived government school education largely due to passing the time reading whatever was at hand. Nevertheless, I believe my children deserve a better education than that. Our work to build the library is due to our desire that children in other families enlarge their learning experience with excellent books written by great authors. I think if we're going to actually achieve this goal as parents, however, we are going to have to do some hard thinking about not just getting our children reading, but about what it is they are

Yet again, I find guidance and direction from Charlotte Mason's writings on the subject. I am thankful to God for raising her up not just to give help to future generations of children, but also for the wisdom she offers to parents who attempt to guide these children into the vast world of knowledge, and who desire to provide the rich and varied feast of ideas she proposes, but who personally have no educational background or even reading experience to draw upon. What are we to do?

Her method was summarized in 20 principles, number 19 beginning:

"Children should be taught as they become mature enough to understand such teaching, that the chief responsibility which rests on them as persons is the acceptance or rejection of ideas."

Charlotte Mason's passion for feeding children with living ideas through living books cannot be emphasized enough; it comes through on almost every single page of her writing. She deplored what she called "desultory" (haphazard, random) reading in response to a defensive comment made to her that schools have libraries, libraries have books, and children do read:

"In the first place, we all know that desultory reading is delightful and incidentally profitable, but is not education whose concern is knowledge, that is, the mind of the desultory reader only rarely makes the act of appropriation which is necessary before the matter we read  becomes personal knowledge. We must read in order to know or we do not know by reading."    (Toward a Philosophy of Education, pg. 12)

In books, she argues, "Mind appeals to mind, thought begets thought and that is how we become educated."  If we are to educate our children to their responsibility to accept or reject ideas, I think we as parents need to come to grips with this ourselves, not just by handing our children an "acceptable" book list, but realizing the seriousness of the responsibility they have to do the learning themselves, to educate themselves. Basically, Charlotte Mason put it even more bluntly, "Delight in literary form is native to us all until we are educated out of it." My personal challenge, which I think I have in common with many current homeschooling parents, is that having been "educated out of it" we have not educated ourselves through literature and therefore do not truly then expect our children to educate themselves through literature either.

Miss Mason further said, "We owe every child to be put in touch with great minds that he may get at great thoughts, with the minds of those who have left us great works," and "that the only vital method should be children reading many worthy books." She even said, "People are naturally divided into those who read and think, and those who do not read and think."

Coming across comments of hers like this gets me thinking about prevailing attitudes toward reading. Is it right thinking to say "at least they're reading?" Charlotte's ideas are not unique to her.

Consider this comment by a great thinker of an earlier century, George MacDonald:

"There is a great deal of difference between the eager man who wants to read a book and the tired man who wants a book to read. A man reading a 'penny dreadful' mystery wishes just to get to the end of it. The man reading Milton's Paradise Lost wishes that it might never end." 

An even earlier great author, Sir Walter Scott, in the novel Waverley, makes these observations about his hero: "The education of our hero, Edward Waverley was of a nature somewhat desultory...The youth was permitted to learn as he pleased, what he pleased, and when he pleased." Scott comments later on, "His desire for amusement with better discipline might have been converted to a thirst for knowledge, but little Waverley drove through a sea of books like a vessel without a pilot or rudder. Nothing perhaps increases indulgence more than a desultory habit of reading..." 

The novel (which I haven't finished yet) apparently goes on to describe some of the unfortunate results of such reading, but the uncle responsible for his education had this view of reading:

"He held the common doctrine that idleness is incompatible with reading of any kind, and that the mere tracing of the alphabetical characters with the eye is in itself a useful and meritorious task, without scrupulously considering what ideas or doctrines they may happen to convey."

Does this sound like an older version of the question I'm considering? Encountering such references lately, especially after giving thought to the question of whether reading anything at all is "okay," I have started to draw some conclusions. I've also considered some practical remedies for how we can teach our children to choose and enjoy reading fruitfully, as Principle 19 counsels, but there are no quick and easy methods that I can outline in a brief post, and most of us don't have the time for much more reading than this right now. (That, by the way, is one of the reading problems I will subsequently address).

For now, back to Principle 19, it continues:

"To help them in this choice, we give them principles of conduct, and a wide range of the knowledge fitted to them. These principles should save children from some of the loose thinking and heedless actions which cause most of us to live at a lower level than we really need."

Basically, if we want our children to read better literature, we are going to have to ask ourselves hard questions about what it means to

1. Read widely
2. Read well
3. Read deeply
4. Read with discernment.

I close with this comment of George Grant in hopes that some of you will chime in with your thoughts as I continue to try to tease out the why and how of better reading:

"If in our day young Christians are not only to nurture a life of the soul, if they are not only to provide a life of covenantal succession, a life of nurture in the gospel of grace, if they are also to fulfill their great callings and to shape the world around them, if they are to enter into life missionally - to make a difference - if they are to
go out and change the world, then they will  need to be prepared; they will need to think; they will need to read."

Ours is an awesome and fearful responsibility, but we have not been left without guidance. We can point the way so our children realize their responsibility and don't just while away the hours reading "anything."

Shall I continue to consider these ideas? What do you think?

For the joy of reading,



  1. If we are truly going to dig into this question, I think there are a couple important distinctions to be made. First of all, is the person reading something that is simple (some would say dumbed-down), or something that is filled with bad ideas? There is a world of difference between a mystery novel and "50 Shades of Grey." Is it ever okay to read something that holds up the filthy and profane for admiration? I would certainly say not; that kind of reading actively weakens our morals and pollutes our spirits. Is it okay to read something that is below your reading level or abilities to comprehend? Perhaps.

    To answer that question, we must differentiate between "reading" and "the habit of reading." As a child, I was an advanced and voracious reader. My excellent father was sure to put good books in my hands, so much of what I read was mentally profitable. However, I regularly curled up with a picture book or a fluffy kind of novel. When my dad asked me one day about why I was reading a particular book, I remember telling him, “My brain is full.” As an adult, I still keep an easy, entertaining book in my reading rotation. I don’t think reading for recreation is problematic. On the other hand, I know people who will not voluntarily read anything challenging, ever. They habitually read for recreation. In that case, the problem is not that it is morally wrong - again the distinction of “simple” versus “profane” - but rather that they have missed out on an opportunity to enlarge my mind and strengthen my self-discipline (CM's "the will").

    1. Some of the questions you raise are the very same ones I have been mulling over. Thank you for responding, as it is thoughtful comments like these that will help us sort out our motivations and proceed with


  2. Regarding your original question, it doesn’t surprise me that this view of reading is embraced. Our society’s idea of education is that the child is a blank slate or an empty bag to be filled with facts by a teacher. The concept of self-education is largely dismissed. (Or limited only to easy principles. "But what will you do when they need to learn algebra?!") If the the idea of reading as a tool for self-education is dismissed, the only concept that is left is reading for entertainment.

    1. Thank you for shining the spotlight on reading for entertainment and one of the probable causes; I think this may well be why reading is fast falling by the wayside in an electronically entertained era.


  3. Yes ,you should continue to consider these ideas!
    The next generation will need to discern between what is right and almost right which is much like the quotefrom Waverly about knowing what ideas or doctrines are conveyed. Much needed in our time.

    “Discernment is not simply a matter of telling the difference between what is right and wrong; rather it is the difference between right and almost right.” -Charles Spurgeon

    1. Bonnie,

      Thank you for the encouragement to continue. I believe it is important to teach our children to discern the difference between mediocre, good, better best. First, we will need to understand; then, we will need to embrace it with action; and most importantly, then we will convey these values to our children without simply programming
      them, but making available what they have an inborn thirst for without being merely indoctrinated or force fed.


  4. I would love to hear more. My children are still young and though we have delved into many great books there are more I have never read that I am sure would be beneficial to us all. I agree with the first commenter that there are times for an entertaining book but developing the will to read more difficult books and to get the gems that lie within them must be developed or we will miss some of the great ideas that may change our lives and those around us as we go out into our worlds with. I just finished reading CM's vol. six and was struck by the ending idea that our education is not merely for us but for our part in the community we will live in. We educate impart to improve a nation.

  5. Sarah,

    I will be tackling the "entertainment reading" ideas in my next post. You are right about development and, obviously, we are not reading the same things we were when we were eight years old still, but as I tried to convey, all of us could be reading better than we do. It also sounds like you have caught the idea of educating ourselves not just for ourselves, but because of how those ideas will influence those around us in the world. Thank you for taking the time to respond.


  6. I read this today from and article from the Parents' Review that I thought was excellent:

    "The literary mind is indeed rare. For a hundred who will read a book for what it has to tell or for amusement, only one perhaps will read it also for its literary value. The appreciation of good literature, for all our schools and universities, remains the possession only of a few.

    Yet, just as the average person can be trained to appreciate good music and art, he can also be trained to appreciate good literature. And it is in the nursery that the key to the palace of good literature is opened. The reason why so few people have developed the critical faculty with regard to reading is that so few have grown up in the company of good books--only good books--but have been allowed, while their minds were growing, to read any printed twaddle within the covers of a book or magazine.

    Miss Charlotte Mason, the creator of the Parents' National Educational Union, has been a power in education because she was the first person to base her gospel on the training of the child's mind chiefly by means of good literature. In the Parents' Union School children are taught from the beginning by means of good books, and the text book is eliminated as much as possible, and the result is that children learn to appreciate and prefer good literature to the reading of inferior stuff." From Children and Books by Mrs. Conyers Alston

    Of course there is a place for Freddy the Pig by Walter Brooks. :) And many of my young patrons enjoy books like these. But thankfully most of them also enjoy great biographies, historical fiction, fascinating science books and classic literature. It all depends on what they've been fed. Feed them real food and they will crave real food and spit out the junk. Feed them real books and they will crave real books...and discard the rest.

    1. Robin,

      I knew you would be on my page. Thank you for sharing the PR article - absolutely my point. Is it okay for me to be a copy cat a dozen decades later? You are definitely the right person to be a homeschool librarian and how blessed those children in your library are to have parents who put them in the way of such excellent literature in your library.


  7. I hope it's OK for us to be copy cats, Liz! Trying to learn more from dear Charlotte so I can emulate her more closely. Hopefully these libraries can be a blessing directly and indirectly to many generations of children.

    1. I think it was actually commanded in scripture - follow me as I follow Christ.


  8. And of course the unpublished Chiliad by Simon Otius at unhappened [dot] com.