By Catherine Levison
Homeschoolers across the country have adopted a “real life” view of education because they have seen it work. Real experiences have a way of teaching that reaches past reading about experiences in a book. For example, I’ve tried to learn the metric system from math books for most of my life. Basically this has resulted in my having a hazy, at best, acquaintance with the subject. When I travel to Canada I’m living the metric system every time I ask directions, drive to my destination or purchase grocery items. What a contrast-my learning rate jumps immediately and I have true retention.
Homeschoolers have also noticed the value of “real” books, sometimes called whole books and living books. An entire book on one subject affords far more retention than a short paragraph in a textbook. Living books have facts in them just like any textbook would but they also feature people living through ocean exploration, wars, scientific discoveries, etc. When children read about people’s lives in a book they tend to care and become connected, then they hang on to the facts far better than they do when they read boring, lifeless entries in other types of books.
Many people come to a point in their understanding of the Charlotte Mason method where they realize that most of her tips are actually working for them. They’ve learned, applied and conquered the primary techniques of art appreciation, narration and they could actually define a whole or a living book with the best of them.
They’ve started collecting books, and everything seems to be going well when universally they run into a couple of problems, one of which is “I can’t find the books Charlotte recommended.” or “I can’t find the books that fit my plan.”
Let’s take the subject of history because when one first begins to find living books they tend to actually start a collection of American history books without intending to do so. Why? Because of the abundance of living books on United States history — they are far easier to locate than living books on Europe, Canada, South America or Australia. Considering the brief time period of United States history (even including discovery, colonization and the revolt), there sure are a lot of books available on this relatively young country.
One immediate solution in the area of history might be to read biographies of people who travel to other countries for nearly any purpose or perhaps missionaries (a particularly helpful idea for the more obscure countries). In addition, developing a pen pal relationship through the Internet can result in a recommended reading list of great books about that country. Doing this myself has resulted in the ability to cover European history using living books. Many of my favorite books were shipped to me from my English pen pal. She was able to locate many of the books from my wish list. When I corresponded with folks in Australia I asked about their history and the books that would best describe their country.
Your need to find appropriate books can possibly be solved by using book lists. We have a great many of these lists available to us — some are geared to the Charlotte Mason parent and some are not. One often recommend book list is Let the Authors Speak by Carolyn Hatcher, and I’ve heard good things about Books Children Love by Elizabeth Wilson. Both are easily obtained through most home school catalogs. Currently, people are very excited about All Through the Ages, by Christine Miller. She too, has labored long and hard to provide a well-organized list of history books of a literary quality. Her address is 1015-M S. Taft Hill Rd. #263, Ft. Collins, CO 80521. There are lists available on the Charlotte Mason web sites too. I’ve added a book list in the appendix of More Charlotte Mason Education which includes Charlotte’s, mine and hundreds of C. M. enthusiasts’ recommendations, from around the world, that I think you’ll find helpful.
A similar solution would be the educational or home school supply catalogs. Many of the catalogs serve as a recommended reading list and you know right where you can get the book. I recommend finding one or two of these that you can really trust. One of my personal favorites is Lifetime Books and Gifts. They carry one the largest quality inventories in the United States and the owners are home educators. You can call them for a catalog at 800-377-0390. Once you become familiar with the convictions, motives and literary taste of any given catalog you may be able to order sight unseen with relative confidence.
Some of my classic book sets I collect have lists of all the other books they publish in that set. I’ve found those to be great suggested reading lists. If you don’t already own a set, look at book stores and libraries.
Obviously, book lists and catalogs will not always solve the problem of how to find books to match the topic you want to cover. While it can be satisfying to choose a topic and then go looking for interesting books that will sufficiently cover it — you may find it can be far more difficult and more time consuming than you had planned. All of us have had this disappointment, perhaps most commonly at the library when it becomes apparent that everyone else in town is studying our topic.
It comes down to this: Should you decide on a topic and then go looking for the right books? Or, can you eliminate this obstacle by becoming so skilled at book collecting that you have a great assortment of quality books at your fingertips? To accomplish this, you’ll have to let go of any borderline neurotic impulses to cover everything you think the public school is covering (but really isn’t). You’ll have to adopt Charlotte Mason’s philosophy that “The best thought the world possesses is stored in books; we must open books to children, the best books; our own concern is abundant provision and orderly serving.” (Vol. 6, p. 26)
That brings up the most important point — there is a skill to be learned. You need to learn to ascertain the value of a book at every opportunity, at a moment’s notice. That is the key to a great collection. In other words, it could be considered your job to locate interesting books, and, because it’s a little like searching for a needle in a haystack, you have to always be looking. Think of yourself as a hunter, your eyes always aware of your surroundings. Every trip to the thrift store, garage sale or your Aunt Hilda’s attic may result in the find of a lifetime. With effort, your collection will grow. Simultaneously, you should begin to eliminate the worthless books from your shelves, thus making room for your living and whole books.
Can you overdo it? Yes and no. If you find your long-lost talent is book collecting and take to it with a zeal (or obsession) that makes for family trouble such as “sneaking” books in behind your spouse’s back, raiding the savings account (again!) or going without meals, then, yes, you are overdoing it. But for most of us I don’t know that we could ever have too many beautifully written books on a wide variety of subjects. This is our goal according to Charlotte, “We owe it to every child to put him in communication with the great minds that he may get at the great thoughts; with the minds, that is, of those who have left us great works; and the only vital method of education appears to be that children should read worthy books, many worthy books.”
Not every attempt to locate a living book will be successful. I have left many stores without a book under my arm. Congratulate yourself when this happens, it indicates that you have become more selective. When I finally locate a living book that I can’t live without, I buy it whether I was planning to cover that topic or not. Possibly, one of my high school students will read it independently and even if I don’t get around to using it during school it is still worthy enough to sit on my shelf and wait, if necessary for the following generation.
While a book is waiting for use, it decorates my home. Older, antique, books have a beauty all their own that hardly needs embellishing. I collect book ends and doilies, so any flat surface becomes a book shelf. Newer books also have a great look. It isn’t often that a book that is so ugly it needs to be tucked away out of sight. There are books covering the topic of how to store book collections such as, At Home with Books: How Booklovers Live and Care for Their Libraries, by Estelle Ellis and Caroline Seebohm ISBN 0-517-59500-1. Also available is, A Passion for Books, by Terry Glaspey ISBN 1-56507-781-4. Decorating with books also helps with the “out of sight, out of mind problem” I’ve had with home schooling products I’ve purchased. When you see it, dust it and generally live with it everyday, it’s easier to remember to use it in school.
The end result of a good collection is that you can plan a study of a person, century, country or ocean based on the books you own. In fact having great books around can inspire you to cover topics that you might not have otherwise considered. Please don’t misunderstand, I am not suggesting you become a slave to your collection. On the contrary, you would always be free to cover something like European history without owning a single book on it.
When collecting books one idea to keep in mind is Charlotte Mason’s suggestion that we cover one man or one country for a long amount of time with a substantial book rather than the textbook style of covering massive amounts of history in short snippets. I agree with her that to know something well and retain at least some information on it, it’s better to really dive in, pay attention and spend serious time on it. The outcome of studying one man for one year would be: An awareness of the country he lived in, what the people around him were like, what the political structure was, or whether they lived well or suffered under tyranny, plagues, economical devastation, chronic wars or a caste system. I believe spending substantial time results in retained knowledge. Without a doubt one of the best explanations of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of books was written by J. P. Inman who stated it this way. “She was a great believer in Big Books. Great literature speaks for itself and an author is his own best expounder. The poet and the writer can speak directly to the soul of the child. What cannot be understood directly can well wait for another time. A great author writes not that he may be expounded, but that he may ring a bell in the secret chambers of the heart.”
Charlotte Mason families usually follow the concept of using a whole book that covers one topic. However at times it’s advantageous to use a normal textbook or a living textbook. Either can be used as it is designed or used it as a backbone where you could fill in with living/whole books. For example, if the science textbook covers electricity we could read that portion and then locate a whole book on Thomas Edison or Benjamin Franklin. After conducting some experiments (careful with those electrical ones) and possibly visiting the science museum or some other field trip, we could return to the textbook to see what else we might cover. This format provides structure, and sometimes comfort, to those who do not want to write their own curriculum. A word to the wise on textbooks — they may not even cover some topics that you consider to be a priority. On the other hand, if the book is comprehensive then the basic downfall is in the attempt to get around to everything, they ordinarily have to rely on summarizing, resulting in a lack of detail.
There are many books that would fall under the category of a living textbook and some of them are truly great finds. There are several definitions as well. One might be the kind of book that is close to being a living book because of its biographical information but it lacks details because it’s simply too short. For instance, Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers and Mathematicians Are People Too (and their sequels) are books I own and use. While I recommend both of them, they are not substantial books covering an entire life by including ample details. Both books have brief biographies and quickly move on to the next life. One drawback they hold in common is when read cover to cover (or even partially), they yield very little retention. Too many people are covered too rapidly, and confusion of details is the end result. Powerful memory or not, when one tries to recall which composer had a large family and which one died childless you will find it difficult to remember. The solution might be to choose one historical figure, starting with either of these books and spend a month or two following up on the material covered.
Another attribute that sets a living textbook apart from a normal textbook is its use of literary language. Anytime we choose a book we want to look for that quality.
Lastly, the living textbook is written in a narrative style. This brings up the important point that a valuable book can be overlooked and discarded due to its textbook look. As we do not judge a book by its cover, we should not judge a book by its format. Don’t miss out on a great book just because it has paragraph titles. Narrative textbooks are available in used bookstores, and there are good ones still in print.
In conclusion, let me say that many parents are asking for a Charlotte Mason scope and sequence or curriculum. While this is not a wrong desire we need to understand the limitations one individual’s curriculum would have. Literary taste varies from person to person — likewise convictions and the resulting discrimination. A book one person might deem worthy is in another’s discard pile. A book I might treasure as my all-time favorite you may consider to be the world’s worst book. A case in point would be if a reviewer has ever let you down (and odds are they will eventually), then you’re familiar with the disappointment that results from finally having a recommended book arrive only to find out it isn’t at all that you expected it to be. Even more important is if the reviewer (or curriculum writer) has a motive (e.g., selling the products they recommend), then you have to weigh their advice even more.
Aside from who writes the list, it will only be as valuable as the books are available. If you can’t obtain the recommended book, it isn’t going to be helpful to you. A great percentage of my C. Mason finds are not generally available. No one enjoys conducting a thorough search with the end result of not obtaining it.
We also have to be careful not to limit ourselves to only books that were directly named by Charlotte Mason herself, not only because many are inaccessible today, but we also need to recognize there have been thousands of valuable books written since her death. I believe she would be the first to tell us we had made a foolish decision and taken her preferences too literally.
This method seems to attract book lovers and Charlotte was one herself. She spent time looking for great, affordable works for her students. We can look at lists, make and take recommendations, but ultimately we have to locate them ourselves. It seems to be a good use of a book lover’s time.
Catherine is a long term homeschooling parent with many years of experience. She is the mother of five grown children and resides in Seattle. She is the author of A Charlotte Mason Education-A How-To Manual and the sequel, More Charlotte Mason Education.