Charlotte Mason on the habit of casual reading

“The habit of casual reading… is a form of mild intellectual dissipation which does more harm than we realise. Many who would not read even a brilliant novel of a certain type, sit down to read twaddle without scruple. Nothing is too scrappy, nothing is too weak to “pass the time!” The “Scraps” literature of railway bookstalls (and airport bookstores) is symptomatic. We do not all read scraps, under whatever piquant title, but the locust-swarm of this class of literature points to the small reading power amongst us.

The mischief begins in the nursery. No sooner can a child read at all than hosts of friendly people show their interest in him by a present of a “pretty book.” A “pretty book” is not necessarily a picture-book, but one in which the page is nicely broken up in talk or short paragraphs. Pretty books for the schoolroom age follow those for the nursery, and, nursery and schoolroom outgrown, we are ready for the lightest novels on the library shelves of new books; the succession of “pretty books” never fails us; we have no time for works of any intellectual fibre, and we have no more assimilating power than has the schoolgirl who feeds upon cheese-cakes.

(Because we have devoted all our reading to these lightweight, ‘pretty’ books) We have reached the point where to most readers, Scott is dry as dust, and if you can believe it, even Kingsley is “stiff.” We remain weak and poor readers all our days.  Very likely these strictures do not touch a single reader of this page, and I am like a parson of the three-decker age inveighing against the ways of the thieves and drunkards who were not in the pews. (we would say ‘preaching to the choir’ and for ‘three-decker age’ see below). But the mischief is catching, and the children of even reading parents are not safe.

Guard the nursery; let nothing in that has not the true literary flavour; let the children grow up on a few books read over and over, and let them have none, the reading of which does not cost an appreciable mental effort. This is no hardship. Activity, effort, whether of body or mind, is joyous to a child. Those of an older generation who went out of their Robinson Crusoe into our Scott did not find the strong meat too much for them.”

Volume 5 of Charlotte Mason’s series, somewhat adapted by myself

The foremost points here are, of course:

  1. to read hard things, and to read them early and often enough that one never quite realizes they *are* hard things to most of the world, and:
  2. to make sure you do not spoil your childrens’ appetite for rich, complex literature by letting them read candy.

One can disagree with Miss Mason on the details and the quantity.  It probably seems extreme to most of us to ‘never‘ let the kids read anything that doesn’t take some mental effort.  One can decide occasional light reading is restful and a delight one does not wish to deny oneself nor one’s progeny.

However, what we cannot say is that Miss Mason recommended twaddle, even occasionally.  We can disagree with her about that, but we can’t put other words and opinions in her mouth which are the precise opposite of those she uttered.

Consider also what she says here:

“Children must be Nurtured on the Best––For the children? They must grow up upon the best. There must never be a period in their lives when they are allowed to read or listen to twaddle or reading-made-easy. There is never a time when they are unequal to worthy thoughts, well put; inspiring tales, well told. Let Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence’ represent their standard in poetry; De Foe and Stevenson, in prose; and we shall train a race of readers who will demand literature––that is, the fit and beautiful expression of inspiring ideas and pictures of life. Perhaps a printed form to the effect that gifts of books to the children will not be welcome in such and such a family, would greatly assist in this endeavour.”

vol 2 pg 264

She does not here define twaddle, though  in other places in her writings, she does give several principles for recognizing it.  Defining twaddle is not what I am going to do in this post, either (I have addressed it elsewhere).  I will just say that there are not only two categories of books, twaddle and living books . There is a wide field of books that are not timeless or rich and deep enough to rise to the status of ‘living’ books, but which are still quite good books that are perfectly compatible with Miss Mason’s principles.   Twaddle is not.  And, again, you can certainly toss your head and flip your hair and disregard her opinions on that.  She can’t rap your knuckles and sniff at you for reading twaddle, and it doesn’t matter if I sniff at you myself. I have no power or authority over you and I’m not going to come to your house and confiscate the Disney princess books.  I just get itchy when people for some reason wish to revise her opinions and put their preferences in her mouth. She really didn’t like the notion of children, or anybody else,  reading twaddle ever, for any reason. You don’t have to listen to me or Mason or anybody else, and you don’t have to agree with us.  It’s okay to disagree with her or with me.

However, surely we can agree on this: Don’t let’s be satisfied and complacent about being lightweight readers (which I am not going to define).  If we find Scott and Kingsley dry and the meat too touch to chew, consider strengthening your reading muscles. Level up, wherever you are.  You need not give up the light reading, but do make sure you are also regularly, steadily, reading something more challenging than you have before.

I have shared this before, but it is advice I received that I found so helpful I share it often so it will reach new ears and others may be helped as well.  A very simple method for improving your reading is to pick a book that challenges you, and just vow to yourself that you *will* read X number of pages in that book every day no matter what- before you read anything light for fun, before you watch a movie or youtube video.  The number of pages is up to you, and it depends on your daily obligations and reading speed.  It’s fine if it’s one page.  The key is to pick that assignment and to make yourself stick to it.  Of course there will be days when you fail. You can try to catch up on weekends.  Don’t let failure be an excuse for giving up.

That’s the most important thing to get from this excerpt: read harder things, challenge yourself and challenge your children. Don’t be complacent about it.  Don’t easily dismiss classics that have stood the test of time because they seem hard to you now.

Just for human interest, for those of you, who, like me, enjoy the little details of historical context that help to fill out the picture of what Miss Mason is saying, here is some interesting background information about some of the references in the excerpt I quoted above:

Three-decker is a reference to BOOKS, not buses! I always thought it was about some modern (to Mason) form of public transportation but I could make no sense of that.

Then I discovered:

“Most Victorian novels were published in three volumes called the triple-decker or three-volume novel at 31s. 6d, or 10s. 6d per volume…..”

You bought each third of the three decker novel individually as they came out, a separate bound novel with one third of the novel- and they tended to be LOOOONG, and also expensive. At the end of the publishing run, your single novel was actually 3 somewhat expensive bound volumes- a 3 decker book. At some point, a couple of the publishers, in conjunction with authors, said they would no longer being paying 3 decker prices for novels, and the novels got shorter and also more affordable. The continued to be published in serial form for a time, but maybe 12 shorter, much shorter booklets over a year, and at the end of the year you had still paid less for your completed book than you would have paid for the three decker.

The Railway Libraries:
Before railways, one really didn’t read while traveling by road. The coaches and other horse drawn conveyances were far too bumpy to permit reading on a journey. Trains gave a smoother ride, and thanks to some enterprising book-sellers, people began to fill that travel time with books.

“In 1849 the publishing house Routledge started the first Railway Library. The books were cheap, priced at one shilling per volume, and designed to be read whilst traveling by train. The library proved to be a great success because railway carriages were lit and, unlike when traveling in a horse-drawn vehicle, the ride was steady enough to read without becoming ill. This made train journeys the ideal environment in which to encourage reading and promote fiction. These perpetuating effects are evident in the success of the Railway Library venture; by the time it came to an end in 1898, it had published 1277 volumes.”
( Victorian Publishing History at by Charlotte Barrett, licensed as Creative Commons BY-NC-SA (2.0 UK).

Given the way Mason puts ‘Scraps” in quotes, I rather suspect some of the shorter railway library books were anthologies or collections with something like ‘Scraps’ in the name or publishing imprint.

Sir John Lubbock

In the comment just prior to referencing the 3 decker age,  she alludes to Sir John Lubbock (The habit of casual reading, about which Sir John Lubbock says such wise and pleasant words…”).   This is probably a reference to his, at the time, quite widely read and discussed essay on ‘The Pleasures of Reading.’  She seems to say nice things about him, but remember what she says about others making their list of the 100 best books, but she won’t?

(The ‘hundred best books for the schoolroom’ may be put down on a list, but not by me. I venture to propose one or two principles in the matter of school-books, and shall leave the far more difficult part, the application of those principles, to the reader. For example, I think we owe it to children to let them dig their knowledge, of whatever subject, for themselves out of the fit book; and this for two reasons: What a child digs for is his own possession; what is poured into his ear, like the idle song of a pleasant singer, floats out as lightly as it came in, and is rarely assimilated. I do not mean to say that the lecture and the oral lesson are without their uses; but these uses are, to give impulse and to order knowledge; and not to convey knowledge, or to afford us that part of our education which comes of fit knowledge, fitly given.

Again, as I have already said, ideas must reach us directly from the mind of the thinker, and it is chiefly by means of the books they have written that we get into touch with the best minds.

vol 3 pg 178)

Making  a list of 100 best books was Sir John Lubbock’s claim to fame. He sent such a list in to the Pall Mall Gazette, and in the next few months it seems everybody who was anybody responded by presenting lists of their own. It seems to have been quite a fad.

“IV. The Best Books, 1886
By the late nineteenth century the habit of drawing up lists of books became a mania—or a parlor game affected, like other parlor games, with manic overtones, a development that had the consequence of ever more rigorously canonizing the canon. … the mania grew and grew, reaching its height in the hands of yet another eminent Victorian, like Farrar largely forgotten now but hugely influential in his day. This was Sir John Lubbock, later 1st Baron Avebury, who in 1886—the year of Harrison’s commentary on the positivist library, a commentary that may have been occasioned by the deluge of publicity Lubbock received—refashioned the business of list-making into the business of listing what came to be thought of as the best hundred books or, alternatively and almost but not quite identically, the hundred best.

In January 1886, on the occasion of an awards ceremony at the College, he gave the notable address that featured his list, and there ensued a battle of the best books, much of it conducted in the pages of the Pall Mall Gazette. The battle yielded in turn a Pall Mall Gazette “Extra,” a separate supplement with any number of contributions to the debate and no small value as a Victorian artefact. This supplement sold at least forty thousand copies.”

As it turns out, the battle was partially sparked by the publisher or editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, who invited other notable figures to respond to Lubbock with lists of their own, or with commentary on his list, and then published them as something like the 100 best books by the 100 best judges.  So when Miss Mason says others may put out their 100 best books list, but she won’t be one of them, she’s saying she isn’t going to be part of that fracas.  AFter all, she generally does prefer principles over lists of dos and don’ts.

Extensive excerpts from Lubbock’s 100 best books and several of the replies here.

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