Saturday, April 9, 2016

Are Living Books and Classics One and of the Same?...

After posting A Matter of Principle, one faithful follower posed some questions regarding Charlotte's statement, "...not the works of every playwright and novelist are good 'for example of life and instruction in manners.' We are safest with those which have lived long enough to become classics; and this, for two reasons. The fact that they have not been allowed to die proves in itself that the authors have that to say, and a way of saying it, which the world cannot do without. In the next place, the older novels and plays deal with conduct, and conduct is our chief concern in life. Modern works of the kind deal largely with emotions, a less wholesome subject of contemplation."  

The reader asked the following, 
...I found something you stated to be a worthy thought and something that has been on my mind lately. You pointed this out: Modern works of the kind deal largely with emotions, a less wholesome subject of contemplation (as per Mrs. Mason)....I am curious as to your thoughts about it? What would you consider 'modern' to be? How modern is modern? We were reading a bio of Beethoven and something in there caught my attention that said "He came up with new, thrilling, and expressive ways of putting musical sounds together that changed the history of music forever. Ludwig's music let people FEEL things about the joy, sadness, stress of life. It was something loud and exciting, and often beautiful enough to give your goose bumps all over..." Now, Ludwig was born in 1770. We are talking VERY OLD. Yet, since his composing, the music industry has changed and we are now driven by music that plays very heavy on our emotions. One example, most of his music had a continuous melody through the symphony that was only 4 notes (the shortest). That was the 'tune'. I know some great modern music that only has few notes repeating and repeating itself and is absolutely amazing. But, again, emotional. I often hear in CM circles to choose books that would 'touch the heart'. Oh, they often do. But again, would you consider that to be under 'emotions driven' and most importantly, is that what CM meant? Because if so, what we think to be today's modern stuff, might not even be close to what she meant by it....
I've been pondering the reader's questions because I thought they were great.  I decided to put my thoughts in a post, for whatever it's worth.

In order to answer the questions posed, I think we would have to ask another question.  Are a living book and a classic book the same?  It appears as though Charlotte uses the terms ‘living’ and ‘classic’ differently in her writing and I wonder if this is where the question lies.

In Charlotte's quote, she refers to books that have become "classics" for two reasons: (1) the fact that they have not been allowed to die proves in itself that the authors have that to say, and a way of saying it, which the world cannot do without; and (2) the older novels and plays deal with conduct, and conduct is our chief concern in life.

According to Invitation to the Classics, edited byCowan and Guinness, classics exhibit distinguished style, fine artistry, and keen intellect, as well as creating whole universes of imagination and thought.  They portray life as multifaceted, depicting both positive and negative aspects of human character. They have a transforming effect on the reader's self-understanding.  They invite and survive frequent re-readings.  They are considered classics by large numbers of people and their appeal endures over wide reaches of time.  The Classics also often refer to books in the Western Canon, or the body of books, music, and art that have been most influential in shaping Western Civilization. In the above quote, I believe this is what Charlotte is referring to. 

On the other hand, living books as defined in blog land and on the Simply Charlotte Mason website are, "…books {that} are usually written by one person who has a passion for the subject and writes in conversational or narrative style. The books pull you into the subject and involve your emotions, so it’s easy to remember the events and facts.  Living books make the subject ‘come alive.’ They can be contrasted to dry writing, like what is found in most encyclopedias or textbooks, which basically lists informational facts in summary form."  I believe this may be what the reader was referring to...and I hope she'll correct me if I'm wrong.

In Principle 12, Charlotte refers to Education being the Science of Relations.  In Volume 3, Charlotte says,
I do not mean that he should know all these things; but he should feel, when he reads of it in the newspapers, the thrill which stirred the Cretan peasants when the frescoes in the palace of King Minos were disclosed to the labour of their spades. He should feel the thrill, not from mere contiguity, but because he has with the past the relationship of living pulsing thought; and, if blood be thicker than water, thought is more quickening than blood. He must have a living relationship with the present, its historic movement, its science, literature, art, social needs and aspirations. In fact, he must have a wide outlook, intimate relations all round; and force, virtue, must pass out of him, whether of hand, will, or sympathy, wherever he touches.
We know that Charlotte advocated the use of 'living books' and the SCM definition would definitely contradict her statement about modern literature being negative because it deals with emotion if she used the words 'living' and 'classic' interchangeably.  However, in reading the original quote in question in its entirety, Charlotte uses the word “classics” rather than living books.  This leads me to believe she means two different things.  Charlotte definitely advocated using living books to spark living ideas and this would be the tie to emotion, but I don't believe this is the same as the original reference above.  

I personally see a living book as being somewhat more subjective than a classic.  Yes, there are some similarities.  However, whether or not the reader makes an emotional connection with a living book depends on the reader and what experiences they've encountered prior to their reading.  Whereas a classic is considered as such by a larger group of people and could have been influential in shaping Western Civilization.   With that said, I do think a classic can be a living book and a living book can be a classic.  But, based on the criteria above, a living book may not always be considered a classic.

Stay with me here...

When I look up the word "classic" in my new American Dictionary of the English Language by Noah Webster 1828, it says,
(1) An author of the first rank; a writer whose style is pure, correct, and refined; primarily, a Greek or Roman author of this character; but the word is applied to writers of a like character in any nation. 
(2) A book written by an author of the first class 
Here, we see that relation to Greece and Rome, or the shaping of Western Culture.  Now, when I think about a book like Swallows and Amazons by English author Arthur Ransome, which was published in 1930, seven years after Charlotte published A Philosophy of Education, I would consider it a living book, which by some, has been deemed a classic.  Certainly Ransome would have been Mason's contemporary and considered modern in her time.  Does Swallows and Amazons appeal to emotion rather than conduct or character?  I would argue it does not.

This prompts me to think, if Charlotte referred to modern works of her time as being emotional, I wonder what she would say about modern literature now, nearly 100 years later.  Obviously, modern to her didn't mean the same as modern to us.  And, have some of the works she was referring to become what we call classics over that time?  Since she's not here to ask, it's hard to say.  

By the way, I don't know that there is a specific amount of time that must pass in order to make a book a classic.  I have read a variety of debates ranging from twenty to fifty and even one hundred years.  If we consider books from Greece and Rome, we're talking over 2,000 years.  Some living book connoisseur's advise staying away from anything published after the 1950's, particularly regarding children's literature, but again, this is not necessarily related to classics.

Either way, after re-reading Charlotte's original quote several times, I believe her point was to suggest choosing books that deal with conduct, rather than emotion.  Ultimately, the decision of which books should be chosen remains to be seen, as the debate of whether a book is classic rages on.  As Cowan and Guinness point out,
The body of these masterworks thus shifts and changes constantly in the course of time.  Plato, who was passed over in the late medieval world in favor of his disciple Aristotle, became a dominant philosopher in the Renaissance; Thomas Aquinas the learned founder of Scholasticism, has been in modern times largely relegated to seminaries; Francis Bacon has declined to the role of a minor eccentric.  Even Shakespeare, now often described as the world's greatest poet, has not always been considered a classic author; the eighteenth century decried his lack of taste and rewrote several of his plays....Virgil's Aeneid seems, regrettably, to be losing some of its position in recent times.  But the Iliad and the Odyssey hold their foremost place as firmly as when Plato cited Homer nearly twenty-five hundred years ago, or when, at the turn of the century, most college students read them in Greek.
To place a contemporary writing among the classics, then, is to make a bold conjecture.  That conjecture is based on the judgement of a sufficiently large body of readers in current society who consider the work a masterpiece.  But the book in question has to be worth their endorsement.  All the popular acclaim in the world will not make a classic of mediocre text.  
...We could argue that, since the real existence of masterpieces is beyond time, we should not have to wait for time to make its judgment on newcomers.  A recently published work might be seen by perceptive readers to take its place among its predecessors and to converse amicably with them.  The sensitive reader should be able to judge. (Invitation to the Classics, p. 22) 
Some of Charlotte's contemporaries and beyond that Cowan and Guinness include in Invitation to the Classics are Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, Gustave Flaubert, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Mark Twain, Friedrich Nietzsche, Joseph Conrad, William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, C.S. Lewis, William Faulkner, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Flannery O'Connor, and another that I would add that wasn't in their list is Wendell Berry.  These authors would be more suited for upper high school and adults.

Authors I would consider worthy for children and young adult would be Louisa May Alcott, C.W. Anderson, Thornton Burgess, Paul Bunyan, Alfred Church, Charles Coffin, Padraic Colum, Alice Dalgleish, James Daugherty, Edgar and Ingri D'Aulaire, Marguerite DeAngeli, Daniel DeFoe, Mary Mapes Dodge, Genevieve Foster, H.A. Guerber, Marguerite Henry, G.A. Henty, V.M. Hillyer, Stewart Holbrook, Holling C. Holling, Clara Ingram Judson, Rudyard Kipling, Jean Lee Latham, George MacDonald, Robert McCloskey, Ralph Moody, Lucy Fitch Perkins, Beatrix Potter, Howard Pyle, Arthur Ransome, Kate Seredy, Rosemary Sutcliff, Opal Wheeler, and Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I don't mean to imply that they've all written classics, but I do believe their books are living.

I am still pondering all of this and would love to have further discussion in the comments if anyone is so inclined :))


  1. Melissa,
    Your wisdom and knowledge is so needed for confused people like myself! Thank you for such a thoughtful reply. I see what you are saying. I have read great many books that I could tell were not necessarily living books but they were so full of wisdom and thought provoking. I so appreciate your book list. I think that will help me A LOT. (wish we lived next door ) (: Let me ask you a question, as far as history goes, based on the book recommendations each 'curriculum' suggests, which would you say to be more living books oriented vs classical- living books oriented ( i. e. Beautiful feet, TQ, SCM or any other source)?
    There are soo many methods to schooling and it seems every person out there has something to say differently. One thing I know for sure, the Bible is a classic and a living book! hehe.
    Have you ever heard of this site? and
    Again, I am not even sure which of these are classic books, I noticed most are not!
    I like how you said that Charlotte 'isn't here to ask. It's hard to say'. That leads me to say there are plenty of assumptions going on in so-called CM edu blogs. Even in the way a child should be taught. I think for smaller children, living books would be crucial to have for the sake of their imagination..but as they grow to be older, their thinking should be stirred by a mix of right conduct books/ worthy thoughts and some emotional books. I actually do think SCM does a pretty good job implementing the mix but I am not a pro in all this.
    I recently heard an audio debate about classical education and one thing they said that caught my attention was that 'one cannot read Plato and Homer until they are at that level. The first time they will read it, it will make no sense to them. But if they continue to read and search for worthy books, they will eventually get to that 'homer' level and will read it with an understanding of a worldview Homer had and what he meant by his writing". There was a time when I couldn't read Thornton Burgess books because they were too much for me! But now they are a breeze. As we widen the minds of our children by every book, they should be able to, later on, relate to real classics as Charlotte would call them to be. Until then, the ladder to build for them to climb on, I suppose, would consist of everything good and worthy and deep of thought, whether through emotional or non emotional book. I would be interested, though, of a list of books one day Charlotte considered to be true, non-emotional classics for younger children, if there are any. Thanks again, Melissa.

  2. Thank you for your kind words Julia.

    Regarding publishers that are more classical vs. living, I think the three you listed as well as Ambleside Online, Veritas Press, Sonlight, etc., all use a mix of both. For sure, there are those older classics as well as more modern living books combined. Again, keep in mind classic vs. living is subjective. What speaks to you may not speak to me and just because it's on a list and considered a classic by 100 other people, doesn't mean it will transform you personally.

    I am somewhat familiar with links you noted and have one of them linked on the sidebar of this blog. However, I would look at these as simply suggestions because what works for one family, may not work for another.

    If you're looking for exact book titles from the PNEU schools, Ambleside Online has some vintage schedules and exams listed here...

    Also, I would highly encourage you to read through Charlotte's original 6 volume writings if you haven't already, beginning with Vol. 6, A Philosophy of Education. They can be found free online through the AO website if you are unable to obtain a hard copy.

    I think you're on the right trail with your thought process. Keep on keepin' on as they say :)