Thursday, February 18, 2016

The modern place for older books

Why do we use old books?  We live in the 21st century after all!

In general, well written older books use richer vocabulary, more  complex sentence structure, and contain more ideas per page than  modern books. Recently written books, by contrast, use watered down language, weaker, less complex, sentence structures and if they have any meaningful ideas, they either sandwich them  between pages and pages of fluff, or they club the reader over the head with the message.

C. S. Lewis, in his introduction to Athanasius, advised that moderns needed to read more old books and fewer new books.  He explained:
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. … To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

We can see the blind spots of previous generations, but it is harder to know our own.  Older books that we use have stood the test of time. They have  been read for generations and will be read for generations more.  It's too early to tell which of our currently published, modern crops of books will  still be communicating to readers outside of the culture and time  that produced them a hundred years from now.  Those who are contemporaries of the authors are the worst judges of that timeless quality, because we cannot step outside our own time, culture, and assumptions to see which are merely passing whims and which are timeless, not with any certainty, anyway.

The marginalizing of old books as though truth and beauty have expiration dates reflects modernity's disconnect with the past, something David McCullough addressed, pointing out:
Learning about history is an antidote to the hubris of the present, the idea that everything in our lives is the ultimate.Former President Harry S. Truman once remarked that the history we don’t know is the only new thing in the world. Picking up on a related theme, the late Daniel Boorstin, an eminent historian, Librarian of Congress, and friend of mine, wrote that planning for the future without a sense of the past is similar to planting cut flowers and hoping for the best. Today, the new generation of young Americans are like a field of cut flowers, by-and-large historically illiterate. This does not bode well for our future.
A sense of the past is not just a matter of knowing dates and events and being able to put them in order.  It's about coming into contact with some of the best minds of the previous centuries, not mere decades. It's about reading their ideas and stories in their words, getting a feel for   Truth, justice, mercy, faith, friendship, charity, loyalty, courage, these are ideas and traits that are timeless. 

While Mason did use some books which were newly published in her day, she relied more heavily on great books of the past.  In volume VI, she explains that the children read literature which was published in the same historical time period they are studying.  She mentions Milton, Pope, Sir Walter Scott, Goldsmith- and of course, they were not 'modern' in her day, either.

She explains:

 The object of children's literary studies is not to give them precise information as to who wrote what in the reign of whom?––but to give them a sense of the spaciousness of the days, not only of great Elizabeth, but of all those times of which poets, historians and the makers of tales, have left us living pictures. In such ways the children secure, not the sort of information which is of little cultural value, but wide spaces wherein imagination may take those holiday excursions deprived of which life is dreary; judgment, too, will turn over these folios of the mind and arrive at fairly just decisions about a given strike, the question of Poland, Indian Unrest. Every man is called upon to be a statesman seeing that every man and woman, too, has a share in the government of the country; but statesmanship requires imaginative conceptions, formed upon pretty wide reading and some familiarity with historical precedents.

It is not that her students never read modern books for literature, it's just that Mason did not see a need to emphasize them.  She wrote that sometimes the oldest students' studies touched on:
current literature in the occasional use of modern books; but young people who have been brought up on this sort of work may, we find, be trusted to keep themselves au fait with the best that is being produced in their own days.

It is also true that we at AO appreciate about older books is that they are in the public domain.  Now, many, many public domain books are still twaddle, so that alone won't qualify a book for AO.  But once we've found a really well written book we love it when it's also public domain.  This means they are available on line as etexts,  *and will remain available.* I can't tell you how frustrating, how  much gnashing of teeth it causes the Advisory when a book goes out  of print. When we put together the curriculum (and when we revise it), it was and is the result of truly, thousands of Mama-hours (these are worth  more than man-hours, right? Just Joking!) researching books. 

We  amazed our librarians with the number of books we checked out from the  library and put on interlibrary loan. When all else fails, we  actually, gulp, spend money on a book if we can't find it to review  it any other way. We scan excerpts of different books into our  computers and pass them on to each other to compare and contrast.  We look at the wording, the breadth and scope of coverage, the  illustrations (if any), topics covered (and just as important,  topics not covered), and then, after devoting months of our lives to  this project, we finally pick the best book of all those available  and proudly and gleefully share it with the world.  Then it goes out  of print and we all have to go on anti-depressants and receive hours  of pastoral counseling. Okay, that last part was an exaggeration.  We don't go on medication.  Seriously, though, the newer, in-print  books have a Very High turnover rate. They very quickly become  newer but now hard to find and out of print books, and thus, of no  use to us. 

Individual homeschoolers can use and benefit from those books, of  course. Some of them may actually be better than any given book we  have listed. But a book that may be perfect for your family (or  mine) is not perfect for AmblesideOnline if it's out of print but not online.

Here's are some reasons why out of print but not yet in public domain books are not  very useful to us:
 We want to share our vision of what a Charlotte  Mason education might look like put into practice, and at the same  time, we want to make that vision available to as many people as  possible who might want to benefit from it.
We specifically want to consider the unique situations and needs of  missionaries, military, and other expat families overseas, as well as parents and educators around the world who love their kids; single  parents; families without access to a decent library, a good  bookstore, or inexpensive shipping; families who travel often and so  cannot cart thousands of pounds of books around; and fellow  homeschoolers all over the world. We want to recreate a solid, sound, and beautiful rendition of  what a CM curriculum might look like today, and we want that version to also  work for all those different families I mentioned. The best way for  us to do that is to rely strongly on public domain works that can be  used as etexts, whenever we find etexts of excellent quality..

This is not the only way to implement Charlotte Mason's ideas and  principles. These are not the only books worth using. But these  are the books that best fit the criteria we set for ourselves at the  start of this project. We want to offer a model of what a real living book looks like.  We want to share a curriculum based on excellently written books, packed with informing ideas rather than twaddle and  barren facts, in living language that engages the mind (often with some effort required, which is also an important part of a CM education),   and so we have chosen what we believe to  be the cream of the crop from those books that are online or still  in print, and in some cases, worked hard to get that oop book available online, or convinced a publisher to republish. 

We share this freely, and we try to keep costs down because we believe in Miss Mason's vision of 'Education for all.'


  1. My friend and I were just agreeing with one another about how grateful we are that you have shared this freely. I have chosen homeschooling our four kids rather than paying big bucks for a Christian school resulting in two full-time working parents with kids in childcare and "before and after school care." For us, it was the right choice. Your gift to us of all the Ambleside mama-hours is appreciated way down here in our corner of Australia. Thank you. We owe you so much.

  2. Interesting article...thanks! I had not thought about reading books produced in the time period studied. I actually LOVE this idea.