Monday, April 27, 2015

What's in a "Living Book," or, Why We Collect the Books that We Do

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 The books we collect and preserve, though most were written before 1970 (and are considered "out-of-date" by the school libraries that discarded them), are still the best options for all but the newest technological topics.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,



  1. Thank you for posting the examples here and coming to Charlotte last month.
    We were deeply fed by your words and teaching.

  2. Emulation means the ability of your method or perhaps gadget in order to copy a different method or perhaps gadget, hence fooling the program in believing the best gadget has been identified. This sounds weird however it can assist you to enjoy a number of your favorite games that were initially generated for programs including Commodore, Atari, in addition to Manufacturers. Emulated Pinocchio