The term “living books,” originally coined by Charlotte Mason, has become well known among homeschoolers. Living books are recognized as books that breathe life into learning, and these titles make up the crux of many homeschool curricula.
But, as parents, we are not always shopping from booklists or purchasing curriculum. Sometimes we are also evaluating popular favorites and trying to process recommendations from friends. This leaves us facing a two-fold question: how can we determine whether or not a book is a living book, and is the alternative really all that bad?
Living or Not?
Do you remember some of the textbooks you had to read in grade school or college? Books that reduce the learning experience to a list of dry facts or memorization of key points typically do not fit the living books description because they distance the facts from life. Well-written biographies and vivid historical fiction, on the other hand, help readers grasp real-life context for the information they are attempting to learn.
The problem is that books outside the living book category are not always dry and boring. In fact, many of them are quite fun and entertaining. This is where we must distinguish not between dry and interesting, but between rich and what Charlotte Mason referred to as “twaddle.”
Merriam-Webster defines twaddle as:
– silly, idle talk
– something insignificant or worthless
In literary terms, twaddle refers to a book that has no intrinsic value other than pure entertainment. It does not breathe life into history, clarify a concept, teach a philosophical or spiritual lesson, or introduce the reader to an important individual, past or present.
Discerning Living Books
Simply knowing the difference between living books and twaddle does not always make the living book evaluation easy, though, because subjective factors come into play as well.
The personality of a reader often dictates what differentiates dry from rich. For instance, a child fascinated by ships might find a ship encyclopedia to be thoroughly engaging while one of his parents would be bored to tears by such reading. Some readers devour everything Jane Austen ever wrote while others struggle to find value in persevering through the first chapter.
Learning styles and preferences also play strongly into the evaluation. Some fully engage with non-fiction while others learn best through story. Some love information presented in fun blips while others find that approach chaotic.
Although a living book list will include titles that fit all of the above descriptions, it is important to recognize that not every one of those titles will fit every learner’s needs. And that’s okay. The key to finding living books that fit both personality and preference is to ask two questions:
- What is being learned?
- Is the learning engaging and captivating, or is it a struggle?
The first question eliminates twaddle while the second ensures a lack of dryness.
Other Thoughts to Consider
There is a misconception that classics are automatically living books and modern literature is usually twaddle. The truth is that twaddle and quality exist in nearly every genre and age of literature, so readers must never assume quality based on whether or not the book is a classic any more than one would automatically accept that a highly acclaimed modern book fits into the high-quality category.
So, is Twaddle Always Bad?
Multiple schools of thought exist regarding twaddle. Some believe that it never has a place. Others state that twaddle is acceptable for non-school reading, but should be highly monitored and limited. Still others hold that regular reading just for the sake of fun and entertainment is beneficial to re-energize learners. Wherever you fall in the twaddle discussion, the key is to approach twaddle like you would approach food with little or no nutritional value. Candy or potato chips can be quite enjoyable on occasion, but they never fill a real nutritional need for even a single meal, much less an entire diet. Twaddle is no different.
Do I Have to Pre-Read Everything?
It truly is hard to judge a book by its cover, so distinguishing between a living book and twaddle is often hard to do through cover-shopping alone. Ideally, parents would always be able to pre-read books to ensure that their children are only reading solid, quality literature. Unfortunately, pre-reading is not always an option. Here are some alternatives to pre-reading.
Seek out ideas from friends you trust and learn to ask pointed questions. For instance, if you do not like your children to read books involving magic or mythical creatures, communicate that in advance to help you weed out titles that would not fit with your ideals and values.
An online search for “Charlotte Mason booklists” reveals all sorts of recommendations, as do the booklists of literature-based curricula or guides like Honey for a Child’s Heart. You and your child will not love every book, but these booklists provide a safe starting point.
Same Author, Different Story
Have you found a beloved author? Branch out and read more of his titles! Be discerning, though, making sure to evaluate the genre of each title to avoid unpleasant surprises.
Eventually, your child will need to learn how to evaluate books independently. While he or she is young, talk through the differences between quality literature and twaddle. Discuss rich stories together while also teaching your child that it is okay to put a book down if something feels “off” or distasteful. As your child enters middle school, have him or her start selecting one or two books from the library that are unfamiliar to you. Pre-read those titles if possible, then let your child share his or her own assessment of the choice. By the teen years, they should be able to discern living books from twaddle on their own.
Nothing sears knowledge into a young mind quite like a living book. Delight-filled learning and retention are signs that you have found a treasure that will be read, reread, and cherished for years to come.