What Makes “Good Books” Good?

Dear Reader,

In working through my series on the different approaches to homeschool (see the intro here; so far I have done posts on unschooling, unit studies, and classical education; more are coming), I have been struck by how the different philosophies define what makes “good books.”

The Charlotte Mason, Thomas Jefferson, and modern classical styles all advocate the reading of good books. And often they end up with very similar lists of books so it may seem that there are not many differences between them. But I am not sure that what is underlying their choices is the same even though the results may be very similar.

I am most familiar with Charlotte Mason’s philosophy so let’s start there. In this approach, good books are opposed to what Charlotte called “twaddle.” The heart of Charlotte’s approach is to feed the student on ideas which she sees as the food of the mind. So the test of a good book is whether it contains living ideas which inspire the reader or not. I have heard it said that one person’s living book can be another’s twaddle. I don’t know if Charlotte would agree with this, but it is certainly true that a book which inspires one reader may leave another flat. So in a typical CM curriculum, if there is one book suggestion that just isn’t working for your family, the answer is to drop it and choose another. There are some inherently bad books in this view (Captain Underpants, anyone?) and a few inherently good books (Charlotte’s prime contenders seem to be Shakespeare and Plutarch) and a whole spectrum of other works in the gray area in between. In Charlotte’s own words:

“Novels, again, are as homilies to the wise; but not if we read them merely for the tale. It is a base waste of time to read a novel that you can skip, or that you look at the last page of to see how it ends. One must read to learn the meaning of life; and we should know in the end, who said what, and on what occasion! The characters in the books we know become our mentors or our warnings, our instructors always; but not if we let our mind behave as a sieve, through which the whole slips like water. It would, of course, be a foolish waste of time to give this sort of careful reading to a novel that has neither literary nor moral worth, and therefore it is well to confine ourselves to the best––to novels that we can read over many times, each time with increased pleasure.” [Charlotte Mason, Ourselves, pp. 72-72]

With regard to Shakespeare specifically, she says,

“We probably read Shakespeare in the first place for his stories, afterwards for his characters, the multitude of delightful persons with whom he makes us so intimate that afterwards, in fiction or in fact, we say, ‘She is another Jessica,’ and ‘That dear girl is a Miranda’; ‘She is a Cordelia to her father,’ and, such a figure in history, ‘a base lago.’ To become intimate with Shakespeare in this way is a great enrichment of mind and instruction of conscience. Then, by degrees, as we go on reading this world-teacher, lines of insight and beauty take possession of us, and unconsciously mould our judgments of men and things and of the great issues of life.” [Ourselves, p. 72]

The quality of the book is so important in Charlotte’s method because it is internalized. This gets back to the notion that the ideas in living books feed the mind. “You are what you eat,” so to speak. Or in Charlotte’s words, “What we digest we assimilate, take into ourselves, so that it is part and parcel of us, and no longer separable” [Ourselves, p. 72].

But what of the other book-centered approaches? I am just beginning my study of the Thomas Jefferson Education method. It is based upon seven keys of great teaching, and the first is “Classics, not textbooks.” From the Thomas Jefferson Education website (www.tjed.org) I find:

“Great ideas are most effectively learned directly from the greatest thinkers, historians, artists, philosophers and prophets, and their original works. Great works inspire greatness, just as mediocre or poor works usually inspire mediocre and poor achievement.

The great accomplishments of humanity are the key to quality education.

This first key means that in pursuit of a transformational education, in preference to second- or third-generation interpretations, we study original sources — the intellectual and creative works of the world’s great thinkers, artists, scientists, etc., in the form they were produced.”

[TJED . com]

The initial idea here sounds very similar to Charlotte Mason’s. It is the ideas in the books that are the attraction. And the education desired is called “transformational.” The ideas one reads in these books are supposed to change one.

George Wythe University (www.gw.edu) is based upon this method of education. On their website, they say with regard to the classics:

“Classics are original works of depth and substance — writing, painting, sculpture, philosophy, music, theory, law, etc. — that engage the student in the great questions of life.

They are works that have wide application and scope. They offer valuable ideas to a variety of cultures and times, and can be applied to nations as well as communities, families and individuals. They are timeless and their themes are universal.

These works change us and ask the hard questions that cut to the core of human nature and human institutions. They challenge us intellectually and emotionally, at times lifting and inspiring; at times tearing down and rearranging.

They are works of power that confront the extremes of human nature and invite students to choose between them. Classics are not dry or boring; they are alive and engaging. They should be studied, questioned, experienced.

Classics can be ancient or contemporary works.  What makes them classic is their contribution to the Great Conversation of the ages, not merely their age alone.

The philosophical core of Western Civilization is defined by a canon of classical works that contains the cultural heritage of liberty. This core is indispensable to principled leadership and cannot be substituted. Its richness is unsurpassed and foundational. Beyond this are additional classics, but they are not necessarily classics for everyone. Nonetheless, all classics are works that we can read and study time and time again and still draw new lessons from them.”   [“Pillar One: Classics“]

I like the notion that classic works are timeless and cross cultures. I think this would apply in Charlotte Mason’s understanding as well. It appears, however, that in the TJEd approach it is only Western Civilization that is in view. So I am not quite sure what “a variety of cultures” here means. Presumably, a variety of western cultures, but the eastern hemisphere seems to be left out. Personally, while I do not think there is complete truth in, for example, ancient Chinese writings like those of Confucius, I do think there can be a large measure of truth in such things. I do not understand in an ever more connected world why half of human culture and achievement is left out. Charlotte Mason does not address this issue of western versus eastern classics, but she does say that the God of the Bible is the author of all truth and wisdom and that He has revealed some measure of His truth to all societies.

It sounds to me like the TJEd approach has a certain core of classics which are not to be omitted plus a secondary list of additional classics which of less importance. I have not actually looked at any of the books on TJED. I am curious how long these lists are and what is on them.

In my post on the modern version of classical education, I spoke of the three main varieties of this school that I know of, the Great Books movement, the Core Knowledge foundation, and The Well-Trained Mind. Of the three, I don’t own anything on the Great Books curriculum and the Core Knowledge series seems to emphasize a body of knowledge but not a list of specific classic books. In fact, the volume I own, What Your Second Grader Needs to Know, pulls selections out of famous books as I recall that the other volumes did as well. So clearly, learning from the books themselves is not the emphasis here.

And that leaves us with Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well-Trained Mind. It is the one I hear homeshcoolers say they use most often so I suppose it is okay that it is the representative of the modern classical movement which I focus on. This approach saves “great books” for the teen years, its rhetoric stage. In the early, “grammar” years children may be exposed to versions of some classic stories such as the Iliad but only with the idea of preparing their minds for reading the originals in future years [The Well-Trained Mind, p. 46]. In the logic stage which is roughly grades 5 through 8, primary sources may be introduced but the main reading is still done from paraphrases of original works [WTM, p.277].  Though the authors frequently recommend books by Usborne and Kingfisher and the like, they also warn against textbooks and prefer adaptations of real books [WTM, op. 340]. There are instructions to steer children away from what they call “McBooks.” The main reason given for this is that such books do not improve reading skills [WTM, p. 339].

Through the logic stage, then, while there is a move away from textbooks, the emphasis is not on providing children with real books and there is no mention of the idea common to CM and TJEd that such real works are living and feed the children upon ideas. Even good books are used for more mundane purposes such as improving reading skills.

Things do change, however, in The Well-Trained Mind approach when one reaches the rhetoric stage in ninth grade. This is the time for great books:

“A third distinctive characteristic of the rhetoric stage is its focus on great books. History and literature meld together as the student reads the works of great minds, from ancient Greece to the present day. Great books are rhetoric in action their persuasion has stood time’s test. As the high schooler studies the rhetoric of classic authors, she analyzes the force of their arguments. Great books provide historical perspective on the accepted truths of our own age; they can prevent the student from swallowing the rhetoric of modern-day orators undigested.” [WTM, p. 453]

Later the authors say that this stage is idea-centered [p. 472]. Yet the idea does not seem to be the same as in Charlotte Mason’s philosophy. Ideas are not the food consumed from great books. Rather, the books themselves are tools that, well, train the mind. They achieve the goals of classical education which are to teach the student to think and reason. The classical education of  The Well-Trained Mind is useful; it prepares one for the job market [WTM, pp. 570-571]. The idea of transformation found in TJEd or CM does not seem to be present here.

Reading through materials on the Thomas Jefferson Education, I felt that the definition of a great book or the value of it was somehow different from in Charlotte Mason’s approach. But in that case, it is hard to put my finger on why it is different. Perhaps it is just that the values behind the methodology are different and therefore the choice of what makes a good book and why is different. But in the classical approach, as exemplified by The Well-Trained Mind, I find something very different. The great books here are tools in their own right. They are not bountiful, healthy meals for the mind. They are reserved for older grades. It is thought the young cannot handle them and so they only get watered down versions designed to prepare their taste buds for what comes later. But even in the later grades, very practical goals dominate. Ideas are not valued in their own right but only as the serve the goal of training the mind.

I still have some questions on TJEd. I would like to know how they approach “good books” in the early years. And I want to do more study on classical approaches that are specifically Christian. But those are my thoughts on this topic to date.

What do you think? What makes a good book good?


5 responses to this post.

  1. […] Charlotte Mason method and the last stage of modern classical education (see my post on great books here). It spurns large classes and disinterested, lecturing teachers in favor of involved mentors who […]


  2. […] books are good books (I have a post on that too here). There may be a few classics that I don’t like (I have never been partial to the Brontes) […]


  3. Posted by Laura Bell on January 5, 2016 at 10:31 pm

    I know you posted this years ago, but just came upon it while searching to understand, once again, the differences between CM and Classical Education. I’ve enjoyed both your posts, and I agree with you on the WTM missing a bigger purpose for our lives. I’ve found it a helpful book, particularly in the early days of our homeschool, but only loosely follow some of her ideas.

    Are you familiar with Classical Conversations at all? You’d mentioned wanting to know what a more Christian classical approach might be, and I believe they do a wonderful job of redeeming classical education for the glory of God. Quite a few of us merge classical with CM ideas (especially on books!), but I really like the combination of teaching our kids to memorize and giving them a set body of facts to learn while filling our days with enjoying good books with them.


    • I’ve heard if Classical Conversations and have read discussions of it on CM boards. There are not (as far as I know) in my area so I’ve never really looked into it for myself.

      I guess one issue to consider if one were trying to choose between classical and CM is whether you think there is a body of knowledge that should/must be learned. Would you consider your child uneducated if they graduate not knowing the date of the Declaration of Independence? What if they can’t name the presidents? What if they haven’t read Shakespeare? What if they aren’t familiar with Pride and Prejudice or Oliver Twist? The two, as you say, need not be mutually exclusive and CM herself I think would consider an education lacking without Shakespeare though I think that is for the ideas in it. But for me one of the big differences is that classical has a list (perhaos not explicit) of what one should know; there is a set body of knowledge whereas CM is more personalized in that I spread an intellectual feast but there is no guarantee my kids take in the parts I want them to take in. If they choose not to eat the vegetables which could represent for instance learning the presidents or the parts of the digestive system then I don’t force them to.


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