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What is a Living Book?

I have used the term “living book” here a number of times when discussing the books we choose for our homeschool education. In some educational circles this term is widely used, but I realize that others may wonder just what I mean when I say that we use “living books.”

What a Living Book is Not

Two terms provide an effective antithesis for a the idea of a living book–textbooks and twaddle. We’re all familiar with textbooks. They are generally written by a committee, have content aligned to certain state or national educational standards (including reading level), contain short passages of factual information on a range of topics in a given subject area, are usually illustrated with photographs or cartoon-like graphics, charts, and tables, and often include comprehension and/or discussion questions at the end of each section, chapter, or unit.

Twaddle is a less familiar term which means unworthy or unwholesome content in books. This can refer to fiction or nonfiction. Twaddle is poorly written and often debase in ideas or moral values (though not necessarily). Twaddle is trivial and/or foolish. It does not make the reader a better person or invite the reader to contemplate worthy and noble ideas. Twaddle does not ask for effort on the part of the reader; rather, it is often purposefully “lite” or watered-down for the sole purpose of excitement or amusement.

A Living Book:

So, then, if a living book is not like a textbook and not like twaddle, what is it?

First of all, a living book can be either fiction or non-fiction. Also, the best living books, if they are illustrated, also contain lovely illustrations (rather than silly illustrations).

I have scoured the internet for a compendium of “living books” definitions, and here’s what I’ve found.* I have composed my own definition at the bottom.

from Ambleside Online

  • a whole book (not excerpts from books)
  • displays imagination, originality, and the “human touch”
  • contains fit and beautiful expression
  • well put and well told
  • contains worthy thoughts, inspiring tales, inspiring ideas, and pictures of life
  • of high literary quality
  • communicates important knowledge about a given subject matter
  • delights children
  • makes a lasting impact on the child’s mind
  • feeds the spirit in some way
  • makes the children “dig” a bit for their knowledge (not dumbed down or distillation of facts)

from Simply Charlotte Mason

  • pulls the reader into the subject and involves the reader’s emotions/sparks an emotional response
  • makes the subject “come alive”

from Sassafras Science

  • engages the reader
  • draws the reader into learning more about a subject
  • narrative in style
  • written by an authority on the material, who has a passion for the material or has experienced the story first hand

from The Real Life Home

  • the author’s interest is contagious
  • promotes ideas that are true, noble, and beautiful

from Homemaking with Heart

  • “Living books are those which have worthy thoughts, inspiring tales, inspiring ideas or pictures of life, and with fit and beautiful expression.”

from Living Books Library

  • L–literary power (well written; images created in the mind)
  • I–ideas (plants a seed that germinates in the mind)
  • V–virtuous (good moral tone)
  • I–inspiring (author passionate about the subject)
  • N–narrative
  • G–generational (can be and will be enjoyed over and over by both adults and children; classics)
  • Imagination–“Living books capture our imaginations. We are changed and moved by these books so that after reading one, we are never exactly the same again.”

from Joy in the Home

  • stays true to the subject it covers (doesn’t cover a lot about many things)
  • written by someone who has been a thinker before a writer and has their own living ideas from thinkers before them

from Leah Boden

  • “Engages the mind and the heart and begs us to read on, to read more and to go deeper than the words on the page.”

Based on all this wealth of knowledge, here is the definition I have come up with:

  • A living book is a whole narrative beautifully written by an authority with contagious delight in his or her subject, which engages both the mind and the heart, capturing the imagination and inspiring interest in the subject, igniting a sense of virtue worthy of imitation, and compellingly inviting the reader, both young and old, to read on and read again.

Next time I’ll discuss some great places to find living books.

*The educator Charlotte Mason, who lived and wrote at the turn of the 20th century, is most often associated with the term living books and may indeed have coined its popular usage. Throughout her writings she emphasized the use of living books in the education of children. However, to my knowledge, she never wrote an outright definition of this term. Therefore, others have complied things she said in her works to arrive at the definitions you find above. The use of living books, however, is certainly not restricted to those using Charlotte Mason’s educational methods.

About Becky Aniol

Becky holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and music, a master's degree in Christian education, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Christian education. She taught classical upper school grammar, literature, and history and lower school composition and grammar for two years, elementary school music for one year, and Kindermusik classes for four years before the birth of her children. She now loves staying home with her four children, Caleb, Kate, Christopher, and Caroline and homeschooling them classically.