What Are Living Books?
Charlotte Mason refers to living books often and gives us ideas of what she means by this label. A living book is one complete work generally written by one author. The author relays his subject with the beauty of words that only one who is an expert in his field, or who has a great passion for the subject, can do. There are certainly exceptions to the general idea that the book is written by one author. A living book would be a true literary creation that often provides inspiration, embodies truth or beauty, or has elements of all three.
Elements of a Living Book
Not all of the elements below will be found in all living books, although they will often contain several.
1. Written by one author (or some cases more than one) and would not usually include textbooks, particularly those organized by a committee
2. Usually a complete work and not an adapted collection of works or excerpts from many works
3. Subjects are written by a knowledgeable author
4. A true literary creation meant to inspire, motivate or challenge the imagination or knowledge of the reader
5. Books which impress some truth of our world or some beauty of our world upon the reader
6. The author has built their knowledge base from primary resources
Why Are They so Important?
A living book is important to the Charlotte Mason style curriculum. Other curriculum styles such as a classical approach use books that meet this description as well. These books are valuable because they provide children with the following:
1. Exposure to the ideas and thoughts of a knowledgeable author
2. An opening for the imagination to be developed or to be further expanded
3. Often has advanced vocabulary and sentence structure
4. Promotes ideas and thoughts on the reader's part
5. Prompts new questions and a desire to know more on the reader's part
6. Consistently sends the message that well-written books are a delight and trustworthy source of information
7. Consistently teaches a child to look for truth and beauty in all books and, in turn, life
A Curriculum Built on Living Books
Living books play a large role in a beautiful and inspirational curriculum. Yes, there is always room for exceptions and variety, as not all yearly sequences or curricula will use only living books. A carefully chosen textbook may have its place as well. Also, a modern curriculum should include literature which is meaningful to us from today as well as those well-written classics from the past.
And while there is a role for textbooks and modern literary classics, let us not eliminate the role for the books from the past. It is difficult to find a style of writing that contains such advanced vocabulary and sentence structure as from a book written long ago. It takes time to develop a love and an appreciation for this style of writing, so don't pass up these books even if your student doesn't like them when they first begin reading them. Often this is a reflection of a student who is new to this style and needs more time and practice in understanding them. Perhaps a solution to the latter problem might be to make the reading selections even smaller. A student will then later have little trouble with understanding and appreciating books such as Shakespeare, poetry by authors such as Keats and Tennyson, Ivanhoe or The Iliad because she doesn't struggle with the language or sentence structure. This has been developed in her from years of exposure to well-written and sometimes complex writing.
Fairy tales, fables, the Bible, mythology and legends are an important part of this approach since they are the backbone for all literary references in more advanced works. Some Charlotte Mason influenced curricula available now do not have many of these classics, tales, myths and poetry included and instead rely too heavily on historical fiction. While this genre is enjoyable to read, it does lack in creating this core, thus diminishing the overall goals of a liberal education.