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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Experience Through Another’s Words

Please visit and share with us at the CM blog carnival! We'd love to have you!

Why use living books? Charlotte Mason understood the need for enjoying learning. When we enjoy something we are more apt to continue doing whatever it is. Learning may not always be fun but there’s really no reason it should be dreadful (or dreaded!). Here is an excerpt from Volume 3, School Education, pages 164-167:

Frederika Bremer, in her novel of The Neighbours (published 1837):

"I was then sixteen, and, fortunately for my restless character, my right shoulder began to project at the time. Gymnastics were then in fashion as remedies against all manner of defects, and my parents determined to let me try gymnastics. Arrayed in trimmed pantaloons, a Bonjour coat of green cloth and a little morning cap with pink ribbon, I made my appearance one day in an assemblage of from thirty to forty figures dressed almost the same as myself, who were merrily swarming about a large saloon, over ropes, ladders, and poles. It was a strange and novel scene. I kept myself in the background the first day, and learned from my governess the 'bending of the back' and the 'exercises of the arms and legs.' The second day I began to be intimate with some of the girls, the third I vied with them on ropes and ladders, and ere the close of the second week I was the leader of the second class, and began to encourage them to all manner of tricks.

"At that time I was studying Greek history; their heroes and their heroic deeds filled my imagination even in the gymnastic school. I proposed to my band to assume masculine and antique names and, in this place, to answer to no other than such as Agamemnon, Epaminondas, etc. For myself I chose the name of Orestes, and called my best friend in the class, Pylades. There was a tall thin girl, with a Finlandish accent, whom I greatly disliked, chiefly on account of the disrespect for me and my ideas which she manifested without reserve; . . . . from this arose fresh cause for quarrels.

"Although in love with the Greek history, I was no less taken with the Swedish. Charles XII. was my idol, and I often entertained my friends in my class with narration of his deeds till my own soul was on fire with the most glowing enthusiasm. Like a shower of cold water, Darius (the tall girl, whose name was Britsa) one day came into the midst of us, and opposed me with the assertion that the Czar Peter I. was a much greater man than Charles XII. I accepted the challenge with blind zeal and suppressed rage. My opponent brought forward a number of facts with coolness and skill, in support of her opinion, and when I, confuting all her positions, thought to exalt my victorious hero to the clouds, she was perpetually throwing Bender and Pultawa in my way. O Pultawa! Pultawa! many tears have fallen over thy bloody battlefield, but none more bitter than those which I shed in secret when I, like Charles himself, suffered a defeat there. Fuel was added to the flame until––'I challenge you, I demand satisfaction,' cried I to Darius, who only laughed and said, 'Bravo, bravo!' . . . I exclaimed, 'You have insulted me shamefully, and I request that you ask my pardon in the presence of the whole class, and acknowledge that Charles XII. was a greater man than Czar Peter, or else you shall fight with me, if you have any honour in your breast and are not a coward.' Britsa Kaijsa blushed, but said with detestable coolness: 'Ask pardon indeed? I should never dream of such a thing. Fight? O, yes, I have no objection! but where and with what? With pins, think you, or'––'With the sword if you are not afraid, and on this very spot. We can meet here half an hour before the rest; arms I shall bring with me; Pylades is my second and you shall appoint your own!' . . . . Next morning when I had entered the spacious saloon, I found my enemy already there with her second. Darius and I saluted each other proudly and distantly. I gave her the first choice of the swords. She took one and flourished it about quite dexterously, as if she had been accustomed to the use of it. I saw myself (in imagination) already stabbed to the heart. . . 'Czar Peter was a great man,' cried Darius. 'Down with him! long life to Charles XII!' I cried, bursting into a furious rage. I placed myself in an attitude of defence. Darius did the same. . . . . Our swords clashed one against the other, and in the next moment I was disarmed and thrown on the ground. Darius stood over me and I believed my last hour had arrived. How astonished was I, however, when my enemy threw her sword away from her, took me by the hand and lifted me up, whilst she cheerfully cried: 'Well, now you have satisfaction; let us be good friends again; you are a brave little body!' At this moment a tremendous noise was heard at the door and in rushed the fencing master and three teachers. My senses now forsook me."

Further on in the chapter pertaining to School-Books and How They Make for Education, Mason asks first, what was it that made these girls so excited? Books is all we know- Frederika said, “At that time I was studying Greek history…” (“In the first place we may conclude it was books,” Mason postulates.) Based on the time of the author’s writing The Neighbours, Mason understood that reading was the form of ‘instruction’ for Frederika. But thinking on many books that are used in schools at Mason’s time and even now, I can understand how she would come to the conclusion that “those Swedish girls must have used books of another sort; and it is to our interest to find out of what sort.”

I’ve been reading quite a bit lately. Partly because I do a lot of book reviews. Books that are just so-so and books that are challenging. Some of the books are hard to put down and some I have to force myself to read. Some, though, I read because I want to find a good one for my kids to learn from.

Way back in 2009, I started researching for homeschooling materials. What I wanted then was to have it all in one easy to use ‘package’ that I could pretty much give my kids the books and let them go. Let them do what the instructions told them to do; fill in all those blanks with the correct answers; ace those tests to show they had learned a lot. What I discovered is that I truly did not want that kind of education for my kids.

This post isn’t about testing or even about using worksheets and fill-in-the-blank assessments. No. It’s about living books. If a child, a student, is given a living book I think that it is almost guaranteed they will ‘ace’ whatever ‘assessment’ is given over the reading.

So what is a living book? Let’s start there.

I wrote a post over two years ago trying to explain what a living book was. My definition just directed to others’ definitions. Now, two years and some reading later, I think I can attempt a definition in my own words.

A living book will grab the attention of the reader. But not only that, the book will be written in an engaging way by an author who is passionate about what they are writing about. It is very good when the book is conversational but that is not necessary to be a living book. And quite often, but not always, living books are old.

If you visit Ambleside Online, Simply Charlotte Mason, Living Books Curriculum, or a multitude of other websites that advocate the Charlotte Mason method of learning, you can find living book examples.

We have a few on our bookshelves *wink* and I’ll share a couple with you. Some of our living books…

The History of English Literature for Boys and Girls by H. E. Marshall
The Story Book of Science by Jean Henri Fabre
How the Heather Looks by Joan Bodger
The Story of the Greeks by H. A. Guerber

Why choose “living books”? Here is another bit from Mason’s Volume 3:

“The question resolves itself into––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 be boys or girls, men or women. By spiritual I mean that which is not corporeal; and which, for convenience sake, we call by various names––the life of thought, the life of feeling, the life of the soul.”

Reading up on the teaching of foreign language (advocating Latin and Greek) from the Parents’ Review Articles, I starred the passage by R. L. Leighton:

“Nothing so quickly or strongly stimulates us to perceive and understand the conditions under which we live as the contemplation of other men living under conditions that strikingly contrast with our own. Personal experience of these differences is unattainable, for few can afford foreign travel, and those who can travel rarely get far below the surface level of hotels and shops, which are much the same all over the civilized world.”

Although it is pertaining to foreign language, wouldn’t it be applicable to other subjects as well? Some places we cannot get to for one reason or another. We cannot go back into time and relive a historic event. But if we have a book that is well written to take us to those places or to show us the event, through lively words and descriptions, we can indeed experience it. And we will remember it.

There are living books for just about every subject. We just have to find them. And that is where the fun starts for us as parents and teachers. After that, we get to enjoy them with our children while they learn from them.

This post was written in association with this week’s Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival but I wrote it late so it isn’t featured in the post at Jimmie’s Collage. I encourage you to head over there and read the submissions. Perhaps next time I will get my act together –on time.


  1. I apologize for the lack of paragraph spacing in the excerpt! It must be difficult to read. You can read it online at AO's site: Volume 3, School Education, pages 164-167 (

  2. How do you get a teen interested in reading, if they're not answering questions? Currently, my daughters are doing ACE paces. One will read the book and do the workbook pages. The other will just do the pages and not worry about reading the book. I love living books and we have done Charlotte Mason before, but they hated it. They don't like to read.

    1. Have you tried audio books?

      Both of my kids love to read but I did have a bit of a struggle to get them to read living books and not twaddle at first.

      And how do you do the pages without reading the book?

  3. Your definition of a living book is spot on:)


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