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,



  1. I love In This House of Brede. It's one of my very favorite books ever. I've read a few of Godden's children's novels, but I'm almost afraid to read any of her other books because Brede holds such a special place in my heart. I'll get over the fear some day. In the meantime, her memoir "Two Under the Indian Sun," about growing up in India, continues to wink at me from my bedside table, where it's been languishing unread for I don't know how long! (How fun to learn that Godden used P.N.E.U. materials! Why does that make me so happy?)

    1. Kimberlee,,

      I understand that feeling of a priceless novel that we want to leave on a pedestal untouched by anything inferior. I assure you her other novels are far from inferior. Her children's stories are the very old-fashioned kind I loved as a little girl.


  2. I've been trying to comment ever since I shut down my blogger account and it hasn't worked. Just testing here. I still love reading what you write, Liz. I'm sure you are even more busy now days with ADE!!! :D Amy

  3. Yay! LOL! I figured it out! :D