CM Method Explained

What Are Living Books (and What’s Twaddle??)

I’m a big history buff, but I hated history class growing up.

While I love history, it wasn’t thanks to my history textbook. I can still remember specific dates and events in the historical fiction novels I read over 20 years ago. What I don’t remember (and don’t care too) are the endless, boring details from my history textbooks.

What Are Living Books?

Living books, like the ones from my childhood, present ideas in an engaging way that children can learn from. They’re one of the cornerstones of the Charlotte Mason method. 

“Children must have books, living books; the best are not too good for them; anything less than the best is not good enough; and if it is needful to exercise economy, let go everything that belongs to soft and luxurious living before letting go the duty of supplying the books, and the frequent changes of books, which are necessary for the constant stimulation of the child’s intellectual life.” – Charlotte Mason

Living books as engaging, challenging, and worthwhile. They are usually written by one author who is passionate about the subject. Dry, boring, fact stuffed books are out. Insipid storylines that are choppy or preachy are likewise out.

What is Twaddle?

Any book that didn’t live up to these standards was labelled “twaddle.”

Yes, I know. When I first heard the definition of living books and twaddle, I had a hard time imagining how to really tell the difference between the two. At our house, we call twaddle brain junk food. It may feel good at the time, but not only is there little benefit, it’s likely harmful. Merriam-Webster has the definition of twaddle as “silly idle talk, nonsense, something insignificant or worthless.”

I want to clarify that a Charlotte Mason education doesn’t mean we never read anything fun or amusing. It’s not all about ancient, straight-faced, classic literature. What it does mean, is that the books, media, and other things we consume are worthwhile and help build us up.

So what does twaddle mean and how can we tell if a book is twaddle or living? Here’s an example of twaddle and living books to compare the difference.

Examples of Living Books vs Twaddle

Example of Twaddle Books:

George Washington was our first president. Before that, George was in a war. It was called the Revolutionary war. The war lasted from 1775-1783. About 25,000 men died in the Revolutionary war.

See how the sentences offer tired facts in an uninspiring fashion?

Example of Living Books:

“Never was there such a send-off as that given the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment, the first to leave for Washington. Thousands saw the trains off from Boston, the cheering loud enough to stir the saints. Great geysers were shot in the air by fire trucks when the cars passed through Worcester and Springfield. In New York, the regiment marched down thronged Broadway to an elegant breakfast at the Aster House. Their gunstocks were oiled, their bayonets bright.” – Bull Run by Paul Fleischman

In contrast, this passage makes it feel like we’re part of the story and in on the action! It engages the senses of our imagination.

Grade Level vs Comprehension

It’s also important to note that many of the books in a Charlotte Mason education would today be considered above the child’s grade level. Books that used to be read in the elementary years 100 years ago are now reserved for high school, if they’re even read at all.

We want to have living books, but they should also be appropriate for the child’s age. Since we’re often reading books aloud, it’s ok if our student can’t read the text on their own. The point is to introduce them to great ideas that are at their comprehension level.

For example, the quote from Bull Run” above is listed at a 6-8th grade reading level, however our CM curriculum uses it in form 1 (grades 1-3).

Let Living Books do the Teaching

Charlotte Mason emphasized that the books should do the teaching. This takes the pressure off of us to try and become an expert in everything who then relays that information to our children.

“The much-diluted, or over-condensed, teaching of the oral lesson, or the lecture, gives place to the well thought out, consecutive treatment of the right book, a living book in which facts are presented as the outcome of ideas.” – Charlotte Mason

Instead of spoon feeding our children ideas through lectures (or textbooks that do the same thing), we read them quality literature.

“I think we owe it to children to let them dig their knowledge, of whatever subject, for themselves out of the fit book; and this for two reasons: What a child digs for is his own possession; what is poured into his ear, like the idle song of a pleasant singer, floats out as lightly as it came in, and is rarely assimilated.

I do not mean to say that the lecture and the oral lesson are without their uses; but these uses are, to give impulse and to order knowledge; and not to convey knowledge, or to afford us that part of our education which comes of fit knowledge, fitly given.

Again, as I have already said, ideas must reach us directly from the mind of the thinker, and it is chiefly by means of the books they have written that we get into touch with the best minds.” Charlotte Mason

Size Doesn’t Matter

She goes on to say that living books stir our emotions and give impulse. That just because a book is big and long winded, doesn’t make it a living book. A small book may be no more than an abstract and “the dry bones of the subjects,” or it could be inspiring and thorough.

The important part isn’t how long the text is or how complicated the words sound.

The Litmus Test For Living Books

We start with a quality book, but if our children don’t enjoy it they won’t learn anything.

“The children themselves are the experts in this case. A single page will elicit a verdict; but the unhappy thing is, this verdict is not betrayed; it is acted upon in the opening or closing of the door of the mind.”  Charlotte Mason

If our children enjoy a book, but it’s not a living book giving them quality thoughts and inspiration, it’s not leading them where they need to go.

“For the rest, he must experiment or test the experiments of others, being assured of one thing––that a book serves the ends of education only as it is vital.” Charlotte Mason

Stop Explaining Living Books

Once we have a living book, there’s a right way and a wrong way to use it. Some of us can remember book reports for English class. After we dissected the book to death for a book report our spark for it was lost, no matter how good or enjoyable it was. Often these dissections and discussions take place after (or during!) each reading.

Charlotte said that it’s important for the children to like the book, to feel inspired by it, and for us to not get in the way.

Charlotte Mason Living Books: The Parents Role

By over explaining and overanalyzing the book, we can easily detract from the learning experience. We don’t have to worry about holding the class’s attention while we’re discussing the book, but let the inspiring words of the book do that.

“The teacher’s part in this regard is to see and feel for himself, and then to rouse his pupils by an appreciative look or word; but to beware how he deadens the impression by a flood of talk.”

“The inspired talk of an orator no doubt wakens a response and is listened to with tense attention; but few of us claim to be inspired, and we are sometimes aware of the difficulty of holding the attention of a class. We blame ourselves, whereas the blame lies in the instrument we employ––the more or less diluted oral lesson or lecture, in place of the living and arresting book.”

“Having found the right book, let the master give the book the lead and be content himself with a second place. The lecture must be subordinated to the book. The business of the teacher is to put his class in the right attitude towards their book by a word or two of his own interest in the matter contained, of his own delight in the manner of the author.” Charlotte Mason

Charlotte Mason Living Books: The Student’s Role

The students job is to take the information in, ponder it, and assimilate what they will into their knowledge bank. If our child doesn’t have to use his brain to think and dig for the information himself, it won’t stick.

“He must generalise, classify, infer, judge, visualise, discriminate, labour in one way or another, with that capable mind of his, until the substance of his book is assimilated or rejected, according as he shall determine; for the determination rests with him and not with his teacher.”

“But boys get knowledge only as they dig for it. Labour prepares the way for assimilation, that mental process which converts information into knowledge; and the effort of taking in the sequence of thought of his author is worth to the boy a great deal of oral teaching.” Charlotte Mason

Asessing Knowledge with Living Books

So if we’re not picking apart the reading or asking specific questions about it (like what date did this happen, what town did he live in, etc.), how do we know they learned the right information? Narration is one of the hallmarks of a CM education and it’s how our students convey what they learned.

“There is much difference between intelligent reading, which the pupil should do in silence, and a mere parrot-like cramming up of contents; and it is not a bad test of education to be able to give the points of a description, the sequence of a series of incidents, the links in a chain of argument, correctly, after a single careful reading. This is a power which a barrister, a publisher, a scholar, labours to acquire; and it is a power which children can acquire with great ease, and once acquired, the gulf is bridged which divides the reading from the non-reading community.” Charlotte Mason

Charlotte also gives more options for how students can use living books to further their knowledge.

“Other (ways) are to enumerate the statements in a given paragraph or chapter; to analyse a chapter, to divide it into paragraphs under proper headings, to tabulate and classify series; to trace cause to consequence and consequence to cause; to discern character and perceive how character and circumstance interact; to get lessons of life and conduct, or the living knowledge which makes for science, out of books; all this is possible for school boys and girls, and until they have begun to use books for themselves in such ways, they can hardly be said to have begun their education.” Charlotte Mason

What is a Living Book?

So, what are living books? A living book makes the story come alive and teaches the student in an engaging and meaningful way. Living books are long or short, old or new, and are usually written by one author who is passionate about the subject. They are not dry lists of summarized facts. Living books have more of a narrative or conversational tone, unlike my history textbooks growing up.

What are some of your favorite living books? Leave a comment and let us know!

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Mama to two littles. Former education major, private tutor, and nanny. Barefoot book addict.