Living Books, Practical Application
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Textbook Fatigue and the Literary Form by Carroll Smith

For many years I have belonged to an educational organization called Association for Curriculum & Development (ASCD) that deals with relevant topics in education (and often those which are not easy).  It produces a journal, Educational Leadership, and also sends out a few books during the year to its members.  I just opened my recent ASCD book and saw the title Textbook Fatigue:  21st Century Tools to Revitalize Teaching and Learning.  I’ve not had time to read the book yet, but was so struck by the title, and it got me to thinking about Mason’s insistence on living books, the literary form.  I pondered that from my experience textbook fatigue is not an issue in her educational paradigm because she insisted that children must not have dry, desiccated texts but living books.  While there are other interrelated components to her model that help children avoid fatigue (access to a broad and wide curriculum, shorter lessons that fit the student’s attention, narration, the habit of attention, etc.), I want to just mention some things about Mason’s use of the literary form.

Mason (Philosophy of Education) says, “Knowledge should be communicated in well-chosen language because his attention responds naturally to what is conveyed in literary form. And again, the mind “has a natural preference for literary form; given a more or less literary presentation, the curiosity of the mind is enormous and embraces a vast variety of subjects.”   The word literary comes from the word literature and literature deals with written works, especially those characterized by beauty of form and expression (, which have superior or lasting merit.  Literary form is valued for its high quality of writing and its ability to convey text in beautiful and well written language and also it can convey transcendent ideas.  Whether fiction or nonfiction, authors using the literary form have an artistic gift of saying things in a beautiful way.  The literary form has a narrative quality and to me, the literary form contains a story so well written that it has power and simplicity from its beauty.

I have dealt with the necessity of the story in a recent blog and this blog will build on that.  I want to suggest here that the literary form which includes the narrative or well written language for both fiction and nonfiction is an organic and natural way of knowing. Facts portrayed narratively are true. When Mason said children learn facts best when they are clothed in the language of the novel, she understood how the literary form works with our need for story. As children read the story, those living books with beautifully written narratives, they do not tire because they are naturally drawn in and “inhabit the story.” And this prevents the fatigue.  This is not possible with facts dispensed through textbooks because facts do not fit our “storied lives.” Eugene Peterson describes beautifully this inhabiting:  “Stories are the most prominent biblical way of helping us see ourselves in ‘the God story,’ which always gets around to the story of God making and saving us.  Stories, in contrast to abstract statements of truth, tease us into becoming participants in what is being said.  We find ourselves involved in the action.  We may start out as spectators or critics, but if the story is good (and the biblical stories are very good!), we find ourselves no longer just listening to but inhabiting the story” (Peterson, The Message, 2000, p. 500).

Norman N. Holland suggests in his book, Literature and the Brain, that when we are engaged with a good story we are suspended in space and time.  That is, through the use of the story, the literary form, in our minds we are in another place and another time.  This is simply another way of suggesting what Peterson has said, “we find ourselves no longer just listening to but inhabiting the story.”  In The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, when the children go into the Wardrobe and then come back, no time has passed and they are as they were before they went into the Wardrobe. This is what I believe happens when we “inhabit the story”  as we go into the time and space of the story and it takes no effort or work to go there.  It is natural to us as human beings and thus there is no textbook fatigue.  This is why children can read various living books of literary form for a number of hours and not feel exhausted.

We must, then, be realistic about story, narrative or literary form or any means of writing.  First, story should not necessarily be equated with literary form or living book.  A romance novel may contain a narrative but it can also be twaddle.  Second, story can lack in transcendent ideas.  Third, if it is historical writing, then the facts in the story need to be accurate and based on good research and study.  I do not want to convey that somehow story or narrative or literary form is divine.  It isn’t and it suffers from the effects of the Fall like everything else.

As I have done a lot of reading to prepare for a paper I am writing on the place of history in a Mason curriculum, I’ve run across some interesting connections about the background of the literary form.  First, it was insisted on by the ancients and apparently used on into the 19th Century and after.  Second, one can only suppose the impact the Enlightenment had on the use of the literary form and thus the very dry and desiccated textbooks of today which create “textbook fatigue.”  Third, Mason was advocating a return to the use of the literary form which had been dropped by many as history became more of a science (than an art) in an effort to be “objective.”  Let’s explore one reason why the narrative or literary form is so helpful by reviewing what the ancients had as an intent for education.

Why would the ancients insist on the literary form?  It seems to me from what I can garner through my reading that the ancients were not preoccupied with information or facts as much as they were with wisdom.  Our preoccupation with memorizing facts has come about since the Enlightenment.  Wisdom comes from our understanding of the integration of all the “information” we have informed by the Holy Spirit.  Wisdom is not about a piece of information or a fact, but it seems to me to be about the relationships between and among pieces of information and most importantly how that makes an impact on the relationships of humans.  To understand this wisdom from the past we must be “inside” the story.  This “inhabiting” enables us to go deeper in our understanding of the events.  Without it we cannot see the relationships among the facts and issues.  If our children cannot see the relationships among the facts and issues, then will they ever be able to turn years of memorizing information for our tests into wisdom?

This being “inside” a story is provided for effectively by the way Mason designed curriculum.  Her curriculum design allows this “inhabiting” that we need to do in order to see the relationships among events and ideas that then enables us to make sense of what has gone before us and how we might make better decisions in the present based on what we know about the past.  This is turning information into wisdom.  It is wisdom we are seeking not just information.  As Mason told us, children who memorize much are sharp, no doubt, but the question is “Do they know?”  Have they integrated the information they have gained in such a way within themselves as to gain wisdom?  In a Mason model, the integrated curriculum the students are immersed in with the rich living books written in beautiful literary form enables them to move from facts to wisdom, and all without textbook fatigue!

©  (2013) Carroll Smith

This entry was posted in: Living Books, Practical Application


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.


  1. Rebecca Miller says

    Well said! I don’t recall any of my textbooks from my public education with fondness. In fact I recall nothing of the ideas between the covers. Mason got it right. I would likr to read your paper when you are done with it. I hope you will post it.

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