“The Art of Book Reading” is a two part article written by Mrs. A Coumont in the Parents’ Review. Mrs. Coumont discusses the importance of choosing quality books for children to read, especially keeping in mind the lasting influence and profound affect the book choices have on them. She stresses the importance of reading books which appropriately match the child’s age and life experience as well as the need to read books with attention and at a reasonable rate of speed. In the continuing article, she expresses some thoughts on how to best read biographies, histories and works of fiction. She finishes with an emphasis on how one’s choice of books tends to reflect aspects of one’s personality and values.
Although I cannot entirely embrace all of the thoughts and sentiments of the author, I think that many points in the article are valid. Mrs. A Coumont is certainly a figure her of her time, including presenting many outdated ideas and the manner in which she presents them, but hidden in between some of the anecdotes are some interesting thoughts to consider.
Here are some important ideas that could be taken from this article:
1. The author compares reading good books to eating nourishing food –both are equally important for the development of the child. Charlotte Mason also made this comparison.
“The Englishwoman’s novel too often ranks similar to the English child’s piece of barley-sugar, it is no regular nourishment for the mind…”—Mrs. A. Coumont
“And yet a careful mother ought to be as anxious about the nutriment of her child’s mind as she is concerning the food he eats, and the clothes he has to wear.”—Mrs. A. Coumont
“For the mind is capable of dealing with only one kind of food; it lives, grows and is nourished upon ideas only; mere information is to it as a meal of sawdust to the body; there are no organs for the assimilation of the one more than of the other.”-- Charlotte Mason
“What manner of book will find its way with upheaving effect into the mind of an intelligent boy or girl? We need not ask what the girl or boy likes. She very often likes the twaddle of goody-goody story books, he likes condiments, highly-spiced tales of adventure. 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."”—Charlotte Mason
“…but we must sustain a child’s inner life with ideas as we sustain his body with food.”—Charlotte Mason
2. Children should read books which match their life experiences and maturity, which is often tied to age. Reading quality literature too soon can be just as detrimental to a child’s health as reading too little of it.
“…for there is a divine law of economy in the development of the human mind, which must be respected, in order that advanced age receives its full share of intellectual enjoyment, as well as early youth.” – Mrs. A. Coumont
“How many, through untimely efforts at forced acquaintanceship, like the little girl in the train, will have formed entirely false conceptions about the merits of really class authors!” –Mrs. A. Coumont
3. Readers should read a book at a reasonable rate, because those who rush through it are missing much!
“In the eyes of a true literary connoisseur it is just as bad form to read fast…” –Mrs. A. Coumont
4. Readers should approach reading with Bacon’s essay “Of Studies” in mind; they should seek to read for “delight”, “ornament” or “ability”. “Delight” refers to one’s own personal growth, “ornament” refers to one’s improvement in conversation and communication and “ability” refers to one's betterment in judgment and discernment.
“In order to attain the threefold result set forth by Lord Bacon in his essay on Studies; namely, “delight,” “ornament” and “ability,” it is very necessary to pursue our readings with some sort of system.” –Mrs. A. Coumont
“Studies serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability. Their chief use for delight, is in privateness and retiring; for ornament, is in discourse; and for ability, is in the judgment, and disposition of business.”—Frances Bacon
5. It seems that Mrs. A Coumont saved many of her most useful tips for the second half of the article. Here she sets forth ideas for how students might best read biographies, histories and works of fiction. In history, she points out the importance of what is considered “Before the Reading” work as set forth in the curriculum in A Mind in the Light. This work is very much in keeping with Charlotte Mason’s own words and ideas. A reader should take time to find on a map or globe the important places described in a book to better fix in her mind the locations as they arise in the narrative. Mrs. Coumont follows this with the point that students should read from various perspectives of the same time period or event in history to better gain a fully realized picture of it.
“The reader…will invariably find his interest and enjoyment enhanced by accepting the aid of a correct atlas by which to realize the positions of the places he is reading about, for, having looked up for the towns and rivers, the battlefields and fortresses, he may feel as well-supplied as a judge upon the Bench, with all the details of the case vividly set out before his mind, and especially if he takes the trouble to read and compare the different accounts of contemporaneous events, he shall be rewarded with the consciousness of having grasped the whole situation, of having entirely mastered one particular portion of the world’s history.” –Mrs. A. Coumont
“Make sure, before you start, that the meanings are known, and write all difficult proper names on the blackboard, leaving them there throughout the lesson. Similarly any map work which may be needed should be done before the reading starts.” –Parents’ Review [“We Narrate and Then We Know”]
6. When reading biographies, it is suggested to keep a notebook with a running list of the names of historical people as they are introduced. If students read several biographies from the same general time period, they will then note that names in one book will invariably be noted in others. This shows that one significant person often touches the life of another.
“In reading the biographies of great and distinguished men and women, it is a very good plan to have a notebook and pencil at hand, with which to mark down the names as they occur…” –Mrs. A Coumont
7. Readers can approach books subjectively, objectively or deductively. In the latter approach, one is assumed to be a more advanced reader –one who has read more widely, so that comparison is even possible. This approach is also based on the idea that one is very established in history knowledge, allowing the reader to begin to understand what in an author’s life might have influenced the particular work being read. Readers might even become familiar enough with an author as to note at what stage in life he wrote a specific book. A Mind in the Light, like Charlotte Mason, helps build the foundation for this level of reading. While history is certainly examined over the years from various perspectives, literature is also widely read. In the upper years, students begin reading English Literature for Young People (also known as English Literature for Boys and Girls) by H. E. Marshall. This book, along with a few others, gives upper levels students a general overview of the life of many great authors, giving students a glimpse into what influenced them as they wrote.
“Besides what we have just termed the “subjective” and the “objective” method of reading, there remains the deductive; and these three apply to the perusal of more works than mere books of fiction. A thoughtful, intelligent reader accustomed to observe and compare, may deduct, from the volume he has in his hand, an immense amount of information respecting the writer.” –Mrs. A. Coumont
“We can sometimes, through his work, trace different, and even opposing elements which have influenced the same author at different times of his career; just as with the various pictures executed by a celebrated painter at different stages of his artistic development…” –Mrs. A. Coumont
8. The author reminds us that while books shape children as they grow, later their book choices are made based on whom they’ve become. This full circle illustrates the importance of choosing quality books when children are young. Once these bonds are secured, and children have developed with a full set of values because of it, they will then continue to read books which further support these same values. This is the hope, at least. As adults, readers are then free to choose books as they wish. Their choices may not always be ideal, but we cannot change their course then.
“The choice of our books is almost as important as the choice of our friends; for, if the saying holds true that “you know a man by his friends,” it is equally true that you can judge of a person by the book he chooses to read.” –Mrs. A. Coumont
Overall, there are some very interesting ideas to take from these articles. Below, I’ve divided the article into two lists: Book Reading for Younger Students and Book Reading for Older Students. In these lists, I’ve attempted to bring out the main elements of the articles.
Book Reading for Younger Students
Quality books are as important to a child’s growth as nourishing food.
Children should read books appropriate for their maturity level.
Books selected for children should be the best in literary quality, be plentiful and be of varying genres.
Children should be taught when young to respect books.
Book Reading for Older Students
The assumption is made that all points listed for younger students have already been established in older students.
Read from a wide variety of genres to develop a true sense of authenticity in history. Casting this wide net will establish a foundation of knowledge in people, historical events, historical time periods, authors and literature, allowing for many connections to be made. It is through these connections that comparison can be made. This is very in keeping with Charlotte Mason who said “We spread an abundant and delicate feast in the programs and each small guest assimilates what he can.” This wide variety of genres –this wide net- is part of the child’s “feast”.
Keep notebooks and pencils on hand to make notes –character names, historical places, unfamiliar words, etc. Look these up and refer to notes often so as to make comparisons, ask good questions and ponder great ideas.
Learn to read deductively –with an eye towards what it means to be a person. In general, what life events shape us into who we are? Authors are people too and their works are shaped by their life events.