The Best Free-Read Books

Dear Reader,

Rereading Charlotte Mason’s first volume, I ran across this quote:

“By the way, it is a pity when the sense of the ludicrous is cultivated in children’s books at the expense of better things. Alice in Wonderland is a delicious feast of absurdities, which none of us, old or young, could afford to spare; but it is doubtful whether the child who reads it has the delightful imaginings, the realising of the unknown, with which he reads The Swiss Family Robinson.

This point is worth considering in connection with Christmas books for the little people. Books of ‘comicalities’ cultivate no power but the sense of the incongruous; and though life is the more amusing for the possession of such a sense, when cultivated to excess it is apt to show itself a flippant habit. Diogenes and the Naughty Boys of Troy is irresistible, but it is not the sort of thing the children will live over and over, and ‘play at’ by the hour, as we have all played at Robinson Crusoe finding the footprints. They must have ‘funny books,’ but do not give the children too much nonsense reading.

Stories, again, of the Christmas holidays, of George and Lucy, of the amusements, foibles, and virtues of children in their own condition of life, leave nothing to the imagination. The children know all about everything so well that it never occurs to them to play at the situations in any one of these tales, or even to read it twice over. But let them have tales of the imagination, scenes laid in other lands and other times, heroic adventures, hairbreadth escapes, delicious fairy tales in which they are never roughly pulled up by the impossible––even where all is impossible, and they know it, and yet believe.” (Home Education, pp. 151-52)

Based on questions I see on CM discussion boards, I would say many of us find that once we have got a handle on how to pick “living books” for school, we are still at a loss when it comes to our children’s “free reading.”

“Free read” is not a term Charlotte used, but the “Christmas books” mentioned above seem to fill the same role. This phrase implies that books were treasured and given as gifts and that they were for the child’s pleasure. Nonetheless, standards still apply. Charlotte allows a place for “funny books,” but a small place.

Part of the problem in our own day is the immensity of what is available. I don’t think Charlotte could have even begin to imagine the large libraries our children would have access to. But even if she had conceived of public libraries with whole children’s rooms, would she have dreamed of how truly awful so many of those books could be? We are as those adrift, surrounded by a sea of undrinkable water. To those of us faced with so many unreadable books, what are we to do? How do we discriminate and find the gems in the oceans of trite chapter books?

Charlotte’s standards here are so much higher than our own. Many of us would be happy with Alice in Wonderland, considering it a classic that has stood the test of time. But Charlotte suggests that, while amusing, it is not reliable sustenance. For her this was a popular silly book (Can you imagine what she would have made of Captain Underpants?!). She recommends instead Swiss Family Robinson. Think about this for a minute: despite its unusual events and fantastical nature, Alice is incapable of inspiring the imagination the way Swiss Family Robinson can.

Lewis Carroll’s classic is too far out there, but other books may be too realistic. Charlotte mentions books about “George and Lucy.” George and Lucy do ordinary things and while the child could well imagine himself in such circumstances, he doesn’t need to. There is nothing new or extraordinary involved. On the other end of the spectrum, Alice is entertaining because it is so silly and unexpected, but one still doesn’t imagine oneself as Alice simply because it is all so extraordinary. Swiss Family Robinson is in the middle. It sucks us in because these are ordinary people like us but in very different circumstances. We can imagine ourselves there and live through the adventures with the characters.

But fantasy is not entirely to be rejected. Charlotte speaks of fairy tales “in which [children] are never roughly pulled up by the impossible––even where all is impossible, and they know it, and yet believe.” A book like Alice is so bizarre and the events in it are so incongruous that we cannot somehow settle into the story. In contrast, E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It includes fantastical elements but we can and will readily suspend belief and imagine that we too have found a Psammead to grant us our wishes. The Lord of the Rings series posits a whole fantastical world, much as Alice does, but again we can imagine ourselves in this world. The key I think is that in this kind of fantasy, though the world may be so different from our own, the characters, the motives and the outcomes are still very much from our world. Though they be hobbits and wizards, yet there is something very human here.

If you are a reader, you probably do not need me to tell you what a good book is like. You have no doubt felt it for yourself — If you are sorry to leave it when it is done, if you are interrupted in your reading and look up surprised that you are not on that desert island or in that igloo, if the characters become friends you are sorry to leave, then you have experienced such a book.

As I prepared this post, I realized that I am reading such a book myself — My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. I would tell you more but I am anxious to get back to Corfu so . . .  another time.

Nebby

 

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