The Why and How of Good Books

Dear Reader,

As I work my way through Charlotte Mason’s fifth volume, Formation of Character, I am in the section entitled “Home Culture — Books.” In this section, Charlotte discusses why we should give our children intellectual training. By this she means not the mere acquisition of knowledge “but the cultivation of the power to appreciate, to enjoy, whatever is just, true, and beautiful in thought and expression” (p.139).  Even in Charlotte’s day, and much more in or own, this is something the schools are not able to provide. Rather, it must be supplemented at home. Or for those of us who are homeschoolers, we must deliberately include it.

Charlotte’s initial statement, as quoted above, shows that this intellectual sense goes beyond the written word to include art and music and other areas, but I am going to focus for now on books because that is what she seems to spend most of this section on. I would like to have another post on why we care about art some time. My 12-year-old asked me this the other day, and other friends have also asked, and I do not feel like I have a ready answer.

But for now, why do we care about good books? For some, the answer may be that we don’t. Charlotte says that if our goal is worldly success, to do well in school, to get a good job, to make money, then reading good books need not concern us. But if we are concerned with something more, with our inner lives, with building the person, with pleasure even, then we much turn to books. Here is how she puts it:

“If people are to live in order to get rich, rather than to enjoy satisfaction in the living, they can do very well without intellectual culture; but if we are to make the most of life as the days go on, then it is a duty to put this power of getting enjoyment into the hands of the young.” (p.140)

The first part of the how is just to deliberately bring good books into one’s home and life. Charlotte assumes children are in traditional schools and many times in this chapter has counselled them on how and in which areas to supplement their children’s education at home. This section adds the reading of good books to that list.

But lest we think the burden is on us parents to  force culture upon our children, Charlotte warns to “let it be a canon that no story, nor part of a story, is ever to be explained. You have sown the seed; leave it to germinate” (p.142).

And what, you ask, makes a good story? Here is Charlotte’s list:

“graceful and artistic details; moral impulse of high order . . . ; sweet human affection; a tender, fanciful link between the children and the Nature-world; humour, pathos, righteous satire, and last, but not least, the fact that the story does not turn on children, and does not foster that self-consciousness, the dawn of which in the child is, perhaps, the individual ‘Fall of Man'” (p.141)

Charlotte seems to speak in this chapter both of stories told by the parents and of books read aloud as a family. With regard to the latter, she cautions against stopping the practice, saying it will be hard to ever pick up again. As they grow older, the children also may do some of the reading aloud which, she adds, will allow parents to correct and problems in their pronunciation.

The emphasis should not be on learning at this point but just on enjoying a quality book. Charlotte says:

“In the first place, to get information is not the object of the family reading, but to make the young people acquainted with the flavour of, to give them a taste for a real ‘book’– that is, roughly speaking, a work of such literary merit, that it should be read and valued for the sake of that alone, whatever its subject-matter.” (p.145)

She suggests choosing books for this endeavor that have at least to some extent stood the test of time, that is, books that are at least twenty years old so that they have built a reputation of either praise or blame.

And such reading need not be limited to novels. She also advocates the reading of travel books (the sort that tell of one person’s journey in a  foreign land), poetry, and Shakespeare.

This topic is concluded with a statement by Charlotte acknowledging that children are often too busy to want to spend much time on good books themselves (not much has changed in 100 years, has it?) but that if we are diligent to keep up the habit of family read-alouds, we can do much to counter this tendency and to build a love of good literature in our children.


4 responses to this post.

  1. Wonderful post. Thanks for sharing on Creative Learning – I am always glad to see C.M. related posts shared there.


  2. […] The Why and How of Good Books CM on Decorating One’s House […]


  3. Posted by Linda on April 14, 2013 at 8:12 pm

    We don’t use the Charlotte Mason style of education but we do surround ourselves with good books, whether it is classical literature, popular fiction, or how-to books. As homeschoolers we often look for books about homeschoolers, for homeschoolers, and by homeschoolers. I found a great site,, which has lots of book lists that fill those criteria.
    As for the idea that the books should be 20 years old to establish a reputation, I don’t mind my family’s reading being part of establishing that reputation, either praise, or blame, after all, someone has to do it, right?


    • We do read more recent books too and have found some real treasures. But my heart also thrills when I stumble across a book on our library shelves which is clearly older. It is usually (but not always) a sign of a good one.


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