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.

Posted in Books, Charlotte Mason | Leave a comment

Ingredients in my hand-cream

This stuff does my skin feel soft, although I wouldn’t say it makes it feel moisturized. The lotion is absorbed pretty fast.
I don’t really mind the snail secretion ingredient.  I’m over the ick factor and have been a long time.  I didn’t read the label until I got home, and I was a bit startled by the whale wax, though.

Is that really spermaceti?  I am not sure I can buy this one again.

Posted in Davao Diary | Leave a comment


Kathy Kohl Seeger, Iskra Adams, (and anybody else who was curious)- to answer the question about other books which reference brownies- almost any story of folktales or fairy tales from the 19th century and very early 20 th century will mention them. The Elves and the Shoemaker are really brownies.

Some other books-
Several by Palmer Cox, who was said to have ‘resurrected’ the Brownie from Scottish folklore and focused more on their mischief than on their secret good deeds
Julia Horatia Ewing published a sweet story about Brownies which were really children doing secret good deeds for their father
The Adventures of a Brownie, as Told to My Child by Dinah Maria Mulock Craik – 1872
The brownie of Bodsbeck By James Hogg (1818)

“THE brownie was a household spirit, of an useful and familiar character. In former times, almost every farm-house in the south of Scot-land was supposed to be haunted by one. He was understood to be a spirit of a somewhat grotesque figure, dwarfish in stature, but en-dowed with great personal strength, and hav-ing a mind of the most disinterested and even exalted sort. It was his humour to be unseen and idle during the whole day, or while the people of the house were a-stir, and only to ex-ert himself while all the rest were asleep. It was customary for the mistress of the house to leave out work for him,—such as the supper-dishes to be washed, or the churn to be prepay-ed,—and he never failed to have the whole done in the morning. This drudgery he per-formed quite gratuitously. He was a most disinterested spirit. To have offered him wages, or even to present him with an occasional boon, would have insured his anger, and perhaps caused him to abandon the establishment alto-gether. Numerous stories are told of his re-sentment in cases of his being thus affronted. For instance, on the goodman of a farm-house in the parish of Glendevon leaving out some clothes one night for the brownie, he was heard during the night to depart, saying, in a highly offended tone,
“G’ie BROWNIE COAT, G’ie BROWNIE SARK, YE’SE GET NAE MAIR 0′ BROWNIE’S WARK! ” From The Popular Rhymes of Scotland: With Illustrations
By Robert Chambers, 1820’s, a book more about folklore than rhymes

Lydia Maria Child even talks about them in her 1835 book
The history of the condition of women in various ages and nations

I think Sir Walter Scot may refer to Brownies in one or more of his Waverly novels. as well.

Robert Burns, in 1787, mentions an old lady in his family who told him stories of Brownies and other folklore and superstitions of Scotland- The British Prose Writers, Volume 23

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Response

Vintage Housekeeper, the folly of pies

I posted something else from this cookbook a few weeks ago.  Something about her acerbic, very stringent views on pies just tickled my funny bone, so I had to share it with all of you.

Pies are more apt to prove injurious to persons of delicate constitutions than puddings ; because of the indigestible na-ture of the pastry. Those who eat much of this kind of food, when made rich (and poor pies are poor things indeed) usually com-plain of the loss of appetite, and feel a disrelish for any but high seasoned food.

It would really be a great improve-ment in the matter of health, (and without that we cannot long enjoy pleasure or even comfort in good living) as well as evince superior nicety of taste, if people would eat their delicious summer fruit with good light bread, instead of working up the flour with water and butter into a com-pound that almost defies the digestive powers, and baking therein the fruits, till they lose nearly all their fine original fla-vor.

Apples are about the only fruit that seems intended for cooking ; (pears and quinces are good to preserve) ; the stone fruits, cherries, plums,’ &c. are absolutely ruined by it ; and nearly all the summer berries are injured by ba-king.

And yet women will make pies ; and mothers will give them to their young children, when a bowl of bread and milk, with a little ripe fruit in it, would satisfy their unvitiated appetites better, and in every respect do them much more good.

—Pies are best for winter food, because then we can bear a rich, concentrated diet, better than during the hot weather. In the spring and summer, when milk and eggs are plenty and fresh, we should use custards and all the light farinaceous puddings ; and ripe fruits.

In cold weather, there is less danger of injury from mince pies and plum puddings ; still for the sedentary, the delicate, or dyspeptic they are never safe. And if the mistress of a family be a ” good housekeeper”—that is if she thoroughly understand the nature of food and the effect of its various

combinations on the health of those for whom her table is spread, she will not permit the appearance of those kinds which can scarcely be taken by the strong and healthy without injury, and which are sure to prove hurtful to the young, weak, or invalid.

In making paste, particular care must be taken that the board, rolling-pin, cutters, &c. are very clean and dry. The flour used should always be of the best quality, dried and sifted. If the butter is very salt, it should be washed several times. Never use bad butter in pastry—it spoils it.
Weigh an equal quantity of flour and butter, rub rath-er more than the half of the butter into the flour, then add as much cold water as will make it into a stiff paste ; work it until the butter be completely mixed with the flour, make it round, beat it with the rolling-pin, dust it, as also the rolling-pin, with flour, and roll it out towards the opposite side of the slab, or paste-board, making it of an equal thickness ; then with the point of a knife put little bits of butter all over it, dust flour over and under it, fold in the sides and roll it up, dust it again with flour, beat it a little, and roll it out, always rubbing the rolling-pin with flour, and throwing some underneath the paste, to prevent its sticking to the board. If the butter is not all easily put in at the second time of rolling out the paste, the remain. der may be put in at the third ; it should be touched as little as possible with the hands.
Rub into half a pound of flour, six ounces of butter and a table spoonful of powdered loaf sugar ; make it into a stiff paste with hot water.

SHORT PASTE FOR FRUIT PIES. Rub into three quarters of a pound of flour a quarter of a pound of lard and a spoonful of grated sugar. Make it into a paste with milk, roll it out, and add a quarter of a pound of butter. For a fruit tart it must be rolled out half an inch thick.



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

History for Littles

One of my favourite history/story books for young children (about 4-8) is an old pre-70s Childcraft collection of hero tales titled Pioneers and Patriots.* Once upon a time and a time when I was looking for such a volume to recommend to others that would be easier to find than my oop volume, I looked through the table of contents to see the authors of some of my favourite chapters- and again and again, it was Baldwin, of the Fifty Famous Stories Retold fame, so that’s what I ended up recommending, although each of the books includes some stories not told in the other.

The stories include things like Alexander and his horse, Dick Whittington and his cat, Washington and the Cherry tree, Betsy Ross and the flag, William Tell, Horatio at the Bridge, Johnny Appleseed and the like.  Some of the stories are now considered ‘apocryphal.’ Some are more legendary than factual. Some don’t tell other details that are also true but reflect badly on our pioneer or patriot.  Some are biased, and if we had the other side of the story we’d think differently.  We read them all anyway.

Earnest young mother asks:

But isn’t it teaching kids lies to tell them these kinds of stories as history?  Shouldn’t we only teach them things we know to be 100% true?

 Speaking of secular history, I don’t think there is much that we can truly say we know 100% to be true, unless we limit ourselves to lists of dates and facts.
I object to the notion that there is nothing to history but naked dates and dry facts.  Motivations, what people believed at the time, culture, and other issues matter, and these are issues that go beyond dry facts.
I object to the notion that there is such a thing as ‘unbiased’ history at all.   What we *know* about history changes.   Points of view are nearly always disputed, or we have more details now and so might understand something that happened differently than it was understood at the time, but that does not necessarily mean a textbook of dry facts or trivial details published this year will really do more for a student’s historical understanding- and *connections* with history than one published a hundred years ago.
To my way of thinking, the way to handle history that may or may not be accurate is to do one’s best to weed out the outright lies (Zinn), but also read widely, generously, not limiting one’s reading to only one approved text.  As you read other history books and other stories about the time periods you study, literature, poetry, diaries, and more, the various possible interpretations will come out, the picture will be filled in better, later, when they are developmentally capable of nuance.

For younger children in particular, start with the sweeping, inspiring, bold tales of old, the stories that people have been telling their children for centuries (or decades).  You can say,  if you must, “This is a story that may or may not have really happened exactly as I’m telling it, but it is a story that people shared because it said something important to them about their heroes and their nation and what they wanted to be true about themselves.

Researching the details behind every heroic tale and introducing scepticism about history to young children is not a great idea. Skepticism is appropriate when they are older and have more wisdom about when and where to apply that skepticism. But it is not really a healthy trait for 6 year olds.

It is really not a good idea to make young children cynical skeptics; it is harmful to their hearts, minds and souls.

 I think it would be a terrible, terrible disservice to our children *not* tell them some of the best loved stories ever told of our countries’ founders.

George Washington and the cherry tree is one such example, although perhaps not the best because it turns out the notion that the tale is apocryphal actually has far less historical evidence or support than the idea that it might be true. This story and a number of others now considered debunked (though perhaps with no better cause than this one) are part of our cultural legacy. There are many references to them in other literature and poetry- and even in small things, like calendars that might mark George Washington’s birthday by a hatchet or a couple of cherries, or cherry pies being on sale for President’s day. It’s part of our cultural heritage, and so these are stories that educated people know. Kids need to know them.

What about TRUTH?

What do you mean by truth?  Facts are not all there is to truth.  History is not just a bunch of facts, names, dates, and places on a map.

It is always good to be humble with history. Even our best supported eyewitness accounts could miss nuances, add observer bias, misunderstand an observation.

All history could legitimately be introduced with, ” something like this probably happened…” or “something like this may have happened,” or “this is what some/ many/ most/ historians think happened.


So what is history?

“What do we ask of it that it should do for our children?
Surely, that it shall give them heroic ideas, hearts full of fraternity, patriotism, and the desire to do and be for the good of others!
That the past shall for them be peopled with noble examples, dear friends, and awful warnings–not for nothing did “Boney” take the place of “bogey” in the nursery. [Note: for those who don’t know, this is Napoleon Bonaparte, would be world emperor, dictactor, accomplished general, failed in his ambitions, became scourge of the nursery used to frighten naughty children into being quiet little mice].
“We want the children to learn their history lessons, not “William the Conqueror, 1066,” but God’s dealings with humanity, the sequence of cause and effect; we want to train their moral judgment, that they may put the motive before the deed, nor dub all men with neat little labels of good or bad.”
Begin by giving your young children heroic ideas, notions of patriotism, the desire to do and be for the good of others, noble examples and dear friends.

For this volume of Childcraft, you have to have a volume 12 that was printed in the sixties. They removed it from the seventies edition, which is one of many reasons why I don’t really care for the Childcraft volumes printed in the seventies and later. Compare and contrast:

1960s set
1: Poems and Rhymes
2: Stories and Fables
3: World and Space
4: Life Around Us
5: Holidays and Customs
6: How Things Change
7: How We Get Things
8: How Things Work
9: Make and Do
10: What People Do
11: Scientists and Inventors
12: Pioneers and Patriots
13: People to KNow
14: Places to Know
15: Guide and Index

mid-1970s set
1: Poems and Rhymes
2: Stories and Fables
3: Children Everywhere
4: World and Space
5: About Animals
6: The Green Kingdom
7: How Things Work
1973: What People Do
1976: How We Get Things
9: Holidays and Customs
10: Places to Know
11: Make and Do
12: Look and Learn
13: Look Again
14: About Me
15: Guide for Parents

Posted in history | 1 Response

  • Amazon: Buy our Kindle Books

  • Search Amazon

    Try Audible and Get Two Free Audiobooks

  • Brainy Fridays Recommends:

  • Search: