Sunday, August 12, 2012

Chapter 4: Living Books

For Chapter 4 of When Children Love to Learn, Angela and I plan to go back and forth between sections; I'm starting off with Maryellen St. Cyr's explanation of Living Books.  She starts out with a description of living books, which form the backbone of a Charlotte Mason education.  Living books, and the ideas in them, are the "mind food" of a child--and an adult for that matter.  Books that do not provide the kind of nourishment that a mind needs are deemed "twaddle" by Miss Mason.  Charlotte Mason discusses the qualifications of a living book, which Maryellen St. Cyr lists out here: they must be well written, use literary language, contain ideas that stir the mind, and not be too easy or direct. (125)  According to Mason, all books fall in one or the other category, living books or twaddle.  They either nourish the mind, or they do not.

So what's the big deal with a little twaddle?  Here she quotes Charlotte Mason's own words: "We are all capable of liking mental food of a poor quality and a titillating nature; and possibly such food is good for us when our minds are in need of an elbow-chair; but our spiritual life is sustained on other stuff, whether we as boys or girls, men or women." (126)  So she does not condemn twaddle completely; there is perhaps a time and place for light reading.  But according to St. Cyr, it must be a very short time and a very small place if we want to raise children to become adults with "generous enthusiasms, keen sympathies, a wide outlook, and sound judgment" (127).  As she puts it, the question isn't so much what they're not learning when they're reading twaddle but what they are.  We may think of frivolous reading as simply a harmless amusement, but that isn't completely the case--all reading has some effect on the brain and on the soul of the child.  As St. Cyr asks, "What enthusiasms are generated by this kind of thought?  What tastes are cultivated?"  Her answer: "There must never be a period in their lives when they are allowed to read or listen to twaddle or reading-made-easy.  There is never a time when they are unequal to worthy thoughts well put and inspiring tales well told." (127)

Although most would consider that a fairly hard line, I admit that I tend to agree.  Based on St. Cyr's examples, it seems to me she's particularly talking here about schoolwork--there may be a place for lighter reading ("elbow-chair" moments, to use Miss Mason's phrase), but that place certainly isn't in the school curriculum.  This is part of the reason that for our schooling, I am drawing very heavily on Ambleside Online's booklists and schedules--I have found their taste in books to be consistently trustworthy and their literary standards quite high.  Safeguarding the children's school reading to include only books of high quality is definitely a priority for me; after all, in a Charlotte Mason education, it is the texts that are the children's teachers, and I want to be sure I am selecting from the best.

But I don't think what she's saying only applies to schoolwork, and that's the more challenging point she's making: this caution about light reading extends to leisure time as well.  I admit that in my own case, the more light reading I do, the worse my attention span seems to get.  The less often I am "meeting minds" with great authors and quality texts, the less capacity I have for them.  It is almost as if my brain muscles, without the exercise that worthy books provide, grow dull.  To this point, I have been very selective about the reading my children do--they are young, so I am careful to provide reading material that I think will be of value to their growing minds, even during their leisure time.  But as they get older, they move through books more quickly, and I don't always trust my own twaddle radar when it comes to children's literature.  And more, I know that for myself, sometimes I simply need a mental break, and picking up something light to read can do wonders (as the earlier quote from Mason herself suggests).  Certainly, "we do not wish to claim more for the vital importance of good literature in the life of a child than it can bear." (127).  But I love a good challenge, and this chapter definitely encourages me to choose my reading mindfully--both for my children and for myself.

1 comment:

  1. Celeste, I completely agree. The more I allow light reading for myself, the more my brain gets flabby and weak. Also, I think the general idea a lot of people have about children's reading is that "if they're reading, that's good enough." I think that's a huge mistake for these little people who are still forming both habits and tastes. Free reading should be lighter,perhaps, but never twaddle. I really liked the definitions of living books....excellent to work with.