What are “living books”?

The title of this website is “Just Living Books,” referencing the types of books I look for when I plan for our family’s home learning experience. They are also the types of books that I would strongly advocate others use as well, and I want to take time to explain how I am using this term. Before understanding what I mean by “just living books,” we need to start with the base of concept of “living books.”

“Living books” was a useful descriptor coined by the 19th century British educator Charlotte Mason. She used it to distinguish quality books from its opposite, which she called “twaddle.” A living book would be a well-written book, often written by one author with a narrative voice, and sometimes accompanied by beautiful illustrations. Sometimes classics are living books, but the definition of living book can apply to contemporary books as well.

Living books are rich in information and stories. They might be challenging to read at times, but they feel worth the effort. They are also books that “stick with” the reader rather than offering a deluge of information that can be hard to retain (more on that below).

Living books “stick with” readers because they often focus on the specific — rather than offering generalized information about an event in history, a living book might focus down onto one particular story in order to illustrate the bigger picture. In college, I served as photo editor for a campus environmental magazine, and our motto was to photograph “real people, in real places, doing real things,” because that kind of content is what made our images powerful, informative, and compelling. I think the same philosophy also inspires many living books.

In contrast, “twaddle” to Charlotte Mason could been an overly moralistic book that speaks “down” to children and is boring or poorly written. Today “twaddle” might be a cheaply produced formulaic book that relies on branded characters from movies or a textbook produced by a team of authors that presents information in an overly dry manner.

I have also observed a huge proliferation of nonfiction books for youth that lack a primary narrative; instead they are composed entirely of spreads of illustrations or photographs accompanied by long captions and boxed information. This is very common now and defines the entire body of work of some publishers. These books can be super fun to look at and contain lots of great information, but I would not call them “living books.” I personally think that information presented in this format can more easily “slip through” our brains and is harder to digest into something coherent. The reading experience is more akin to reading a webpages with lots of hyperlinks and ads on the page, something that studies have shown negatively affects retention and comprehension of information. So, while such books are chock full of information and can be fun and beautiful to read, I would probably consider them closer to “twaddle” than to living books. My children check these books out from the library to read and look at in their free time, but I have yet to use them in our school context (although I could see their value as a supplemental text at some point).

In contrast, linear reading of text without distractions (such as links, ads, excessive captions or side notes) produces a stronger comprehension and retention experience. It can also more readily lead the reader into the “deep reading” experience of being lost in a book. (For more analysis of different reading experiences, I highly recommend The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr.)

In this way, a good test for a living book is how well it reads aloud. Is there a primary text that an educator can read to a child? (As opposed to a jumble of boxes and captions without any primacy to how the information is presented.) Does the text flow? Does it engage the attention of the reader and listener both? Do the illustrations or photographs add to the reading experience in a meaningful way?

Sometimes the difference between a living book and twaddle is easier to understand simply through exposure to specific examples, such as those provided on this website. Living books can also transcend expected genres. For example, I would call Calvin & Hobbes comics living books even though I wouldn’t necessarily include them in my school lessons!

There’s a vitality to living books, often stemming from the original inspiration of the writer/illustrator and their hard work to produce something of quality. That vitality is what inspires the reader to keep reading. That doesn’t mean the book is “titillating,” but is instead rich in language, stories, images that provide a deeply satisfying reading experience.

These kinds of vital, “living” books often make a fabulous foundation to an education, especially a home-based education, which is often heavy on reading as a means of learning about the world. Living books particularly make up the foundation for many homeschooling families adhering to Charlotte Mason’s philosophies, Waldorf pedagogy, or a Classical approach — these homeschooling approaches all prioritize quality literature, art, and music.

But, living books are wonderful for readers of all kinds — for the eclectic homeschooler or unschooler, as supplemental reading for kids who attend school, for older students doing research for projects, and for adults seeking to expand their reading life and learn more about their world! All of the books I list in my documentation of our family’s homeschooling journey are books that I think qualify as “living books.”

In summary …

When seeking living books, I DO look for:

  • Strong primary narrative text, often written by one author, that is quality prose (or verse) and flows well if read aloud
  • Masterful illustrations or photographs that support the main text in meaningful ways (and if picturing maps, animals or plants, illustrations that depict them accurately, even if stylized)
  • Information about the world presented through real, specific stories
  • First-hand accounts of experiences
  • Rich books that grip a reader’s attention through quality rather than titillation
  • Stories whose “lessons” (educational or moral) are contained organically within the story-telling itself

When seeking living books, I AVOID:

  • Books that lack a primary narrative thread and instead rely on boxes of information or pictures plus long captions
  • Textbooks that are dry compendiums of facts, dates, names
  • Books that talk down to youthful audiences or overly moralize stories
  • Formulaic series or books featuring branded characters that are light on real story development
  • Illustrations that are sloppy, uninspired or inaccurate when depicting plants, animals or maps
  • Photographs, illustrations, maps, captions, and graphs that are used in ways that distract rather than add to the primary reading experience