Finding Living Books to Brighten up Your Self-Education

For children and adults alike!

Photo by freddie marriage on Unsplash

This is the first post in a new series that I am beginning on my Medium blog, in which I will explore the different approaches to education with you, learning and reflecting as I go. Whether you are a young student — in a traditional school, an experimental program, or out in the world — or a parent, or any adult who wishes to keep learning — as all of us should — I believe that these topics can be truly enlightening.

I am a huge proponent of learning in an organic and mostly unstructured way, but also of learning intentionally. In these articles, I will be going over several different methods of education that some smart, dedicated folks have come up with throughout human history, with an eye on how the techniques can be implemented in my own life, and in any modern self-education journey that you might be going through.

My Self-Education

In my self-education journey during my childhood and adolescence, I developed a whole list of different ways to approach the act of gaining knowledge. The discoveries and epiphanies that I had about what I found to work like magic on my own mind were mostly casual instances of exploration, scattered throughout daily life. I never made a physical list of them, but rather noticed the effects of certain techniques, and sought out more epiphanies by experimenting on myself. I know that this is also the path that a lot of unschoolers and worldschoolers take.

Only recently have I begun to pinpoint my theories about what constitutes engaging, effective, and rewarding education, by digging into a range of books by the historical figures at the forefront of educational philosophy. This process started as a curiosity — and still is, to be fair — but has now also become a way for me to be even more deliberate in my studying, so that it will be a joy instead of a bore.

Charlotte Mason…

In my research, I came across a wonderful book called The Original Homeschool Series that lays out the ideas behind the Charlotte Mason method, from the legendary lady herself.

If you are not familiar with Charlotte Mason: She was a British education reformer at the turn of the twentieth century, who gave her name to the “Charlotte Mason schools” that exist around the world, all following her philosophy. Her method of teaching children is especially popular among homeschoolers because of its flexible approach.

… and Her Living Books

In short, Charlotte Mason believed in the importance of a wide, liberal education for young people, with a core focus on “living books”.

“One more thing is of vital importance; children must have books, living books; the best are not too good for them; anything less than the best is not good enough; and if it is needful to exercise economy, let go everything that belongs to soft and luxurious living before letting go the duty of supplying the books, and the frequent changes of books, which are necessary for the constant stimulation of the child’s intellectual life.” — Charlotte Mason

The term might sound alien, but it is probably a familiar concept to those of us who enjoy reading. Living books are simply those books which bring a topic to life for the reader, and are written by authors who are deeply familiar with what they are talking about, without simply regurgitating information from other secondary sources. I’m sure some of you are reading this wistfully, thinking back to your own schooling journey. The generic textbook is exactly what living books are trying not to be, but unfortunately, many people, especially in the public education system, never really get past those run-of-the-mill textbooks. Sure, they are useful, but for most kids, they do not ignite the soul or create an intense spark of curious engagement.

In the best case scenario, they provide hefty additional information for the student who feels compelled to delve further into a topic that has caught his imagination, while in the worst case scenario, they bombard the understandably ignorant student with a thousand facts that she will soon forget, not only wasting precious time, but also removing any doubt from the young victim’s mind that they might want to overcome their ignorance at some point in their lives.

In this way, they ease the teacher’s nerves by providing a stable path through the curriculum, but I believe that for the most part, neither the teacher nor the students are pleased with this arrangement, when a little educational creativity could have worked wonders for the engagement of both parties.

In addition, Mason stresses the importance of going to the source of ideas instead of looking only for the carefully packaged information derived from the ideas that other people have had thanks to those very sources. We must stretch our minds, form opinions, and think critically through our own experiences before we can gain access to our real capacity of absorbing incredible amounts of information about a topic.

“A child’s intercourse must always be with good books, the best that we can find. We must put into their hands the sources which we must needs use for ourselves, the best books of the best writers. For the mind is capable of dealing with only one kind of food; it lives, grows and is nourished upon ideas only; mere information is to it as a meal of sawdust to the body. “ — Charlotte Mason

While Mason focuses on the use of ideas for children, we can easily extrapolate it to all ages and scenarios.

For example, if you want to learn mythology, a few evenings spent in the company of Metamorphoses by Ovid, which is quoted in almost all mythology textbooks, is generally going to be an experience of higher quality and more impact than reading about some of its main themes from a textbook on Ancient Greece. At least for the initial phase, before you get hooked on learning more. Simple enough, right?

Some of my favorite additional descriptions of living books are vague, but give a sense of the types of reading material that children — and all the rest of us as well— deserve as we learn.

“For the children? They must grow up upon the best . . . There is never a time when they are unequal to worthy thoughts, well put; inspiring tales, well told.” — Charlotte Mason

Mason also describes the living book as “the fit and beautiful expression of inspiring ideas and pictures of life.” Yes, these descriptions are nebulous, but I think that we can truly feel it in our bones when a piece of literature is worthy of the title of “living”. It needs the human touch and an invigorating originality, and should foster a taste for the awe-inspiring.

An Example to Get Started

Now that you are acquainted with the soul of living books, you might be looking for a concrete example. Personally, I directed my own education using these types of books from a young age, and I think that this tends to happen when children are left to their own devices, equipped with some fundamental interests and a list of fascinations that grows by the day. We all gravitate towards engaging material, no matter our age.

As an example of a living book that helped me become more interested in the world, I must name one of my latest reads, The Song of Achilles. Even if you don’t like the topic — though I recommend you try it out for a spell — this living book will get your ideas flowing…

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Madeline Miller knows her stuff when it comes to mythology. In fact, she spent ten years writing The Song of Achilles, all the while working as a Latin and Greek teacher and reading about the stories that inspired her novel in their original languages. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to feel inspired to explore more of the ancient heroes that are often referenced in the Western Canon.

Miller has a way of bringing these characters alive. Achilles is full of vulnerability. Patroclus is utterly human. The Battle of Troy feels like it is happening around you. When you tear your eyes away from the pages and are jerked back into reality, it feels insane to remember that Troy has not existed for over three millennia. This is the kind of power that living books often have over the reader.

Now, what I come across on the topic of mythology will be irrevocably intertwined with my experience of reading about the young Achilles in such vivd detail. Dates and heroes’ names are so much easier to memorize when you have a context to place them in, raw emotions that are attached to the ideas that are presented, and a melodic prose to to paint the scene.

Falling in love with the complexity of characters is an amazing way to learn about history — in this case, history merged with fantasy.

⭐️ Follow for more content on the things I consume and think about — especially for more from this new education series ⭐️

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Damla Ozdemir

Damla Ozdemir

Duke University ’23 🏫 Writer @sailors.n.yachts ⛵️ worldschooling/unschooling ✏️ 9 countries, 3 continents, 2 boarding schools, 10 languages 🏫