Living Books: Essential to a Student’s Appetite for Learning

May 31, 2021 Updated: May 31, 2021

Grandma’s counter was spread with salads, appetizers, main dishes, and desserts for the family meal. All the second cousins were vying for the coveted positions at the front of the line. The food was blessed and with excessive speed, the entire feast was devoured. It would be comical to suggest that the family needed to be coaxed into consuming the feast.

Consider this: The old-fashioned, family get-together is to eating as “living books” are to educating.

In home educating circles, the living book is an old concept, found in Charlotte Mason principles. The Charlotte Mason educational philosophy demands that information be communicated in well-written literature. One of the characteristics of a living book is its ability to powerfully influence the reader’s mind through a direct connection with the author’s mind.

Living Books Go to the Source

All the talk before the family reunion revolves around the food and who is making the iconic dishes. Grandpa always smokes the turkey, and nobody wants it any other way. The same can be said for various subjects in literature. If John Adams is the subject, David McCullough is a modern author who arranged and exposited many of the original documents on this great man. Likewise, geography is served amazingly well by Richard Halliburton, as geometry is by Euclid.

The authors of living books tend to have an intense gift within their subject area, and reading their work makes their passion contagious. When reading a living book, the author’s intensity on the topic should be obvious, and when families are exposed to these great minds, it’s as if their subject matter is taught by a great master teacher.

Think of how family recipes typically come from years of trial and error, till the method and ingredients are just to the liking of the family. The recipe becomes an original that is sometimes even kept a secret! The living book is also characterized by this original nature. Has this author lived through the topic of the book? Was the author actively engaged in the activity described in the book? If the book is on history, did this author have access and write from original documents? (The original documents themselves are also classified as “living” in Charlotte Mason-inspired curriculum.) Did the author write during the time frame of the events that occurred? The love and attention the topic is given in a living book demonstrates the author’s personal investment to make the book just right.

Living Books Offer Rich Content

Imagine the disappointment if Aunt Betsy showed up at Grandma’s potluck with a dozen supplements instead of her layer salad. We like to enjoy our nutrients within foods, not removed from foods, divided into categories, and placed into capsules. Living books provide just the right mix of literary finesse with concepts. It is not as if any of the “food” is wasted, but as any dietician can explain, nutrient absorption is aided by other nutrients.

For example, in “The Mystery of the Periodic Table” by Benjamin D. Wiker, the narrative behind an imaginary element (phlogiston) whose existence was postulated by scientists can help us understand the periodic table and the French Revolution. This story can also show us the change inherent to the study of science through the scientific method. Without this living book, the French Revolution, the periodic table, and the discovery of oxygen may seem dry and disconnected.

Living Books Require No Preparation

If cousin Naomi filled her plate at the potluck and Grandma grabbed it, dumped her Chinette plateful into the blender, sat Naomi down, and started spoon-feeding her, the joy of the feast would be over for both Grandma and Naomi. When poorly written books containing facts with no connections are forced in a prescribed manner onto a child, it kills the delightfulness of learning for the parent and the student. The parent, by default, benefits just as much from living literature and finds that he or she become a willing student along with the child.

Living books are an intricate part of the feast of learning. It’s never too early to start or too late to continue discovering with living literature. These treasures sustain the pleasure of learning in students of all ages. So, pass Aunt Mabel’s potato casserole, and let’s dig in!

Additional Resources

For more information on living books, go to AmblesideOnline.org, which links readers to Charlotte Mason’s writings on the subject.

Tricia Fowler is a homeschooling momma in the Midwest. She currently spends much of her time teaching math, feeding sourdough, and helping with whatever is in season on the hobby farm she shares with her husband and seven children.