The Importance of Books in Education

I am going to base this entire post on one premise that I feel is indisputable: Reading quality books is the foundation of education. You can’t educate a child without books, and any person (child or adult) who is not reading books is not furthering his or her education. If a student had access to no other school activity at all other than reading quality books, that student would still learn a lot. No science experiments, no field trips, no “real-world experience,” no time spent with a tutor or teacher can do what quality books can do.

It’s not that any of those activities are bad. In fact, they can serve to enhance what a student has been reading, but too much “learning experiences” can be a distraction. I have seen homeschoolers fall into this trap of chasing experiences, which — if they are getting in the way of time spent reading —  are interfering with, rather than enhancing, education.

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Why Books?

A book is a direct link to the ideas of the past. Reading shows reverence for the body of knowledge that has existed in the world before you did, and by putting yourself under the tutelage of an author you are both admitting that you have a need to learn and are inviting the author to share with you the knowledge and ideas they have accumulated. (Incidentally, this is why you want to be careful not to submit yourself to books written by a bona fide “bad person” — at least not without knowing that going into it.)

Without books, you are starting all knowledge from scratch — like you’re going to figure out the entire world all by yourself, thank you very much. (Hint: You’re not.) Without reading books, at best you’re accepting secondhand information from others who have been reading, and at worst you are starving your mind from ideas, which is its sustenance. (This idea, btw, is rooted in Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education, which you can read about here.)

What Qualifies as a Quality Book?

Quality books are sometimes called “living books” in certain circles. Although this is a subjective description, there are some key qualities you can find in all living books.

  1. A living book has one or two authors who are experts in their field (professional or amateur) with firsthand experience and lots of it. They are not written by a committee (as many textbooks are).
  2. Living books are meant to be read in their entirety. Reading only a small excerpt taken from a living book is like giving someone half of a kitten. Ew.
  3. Living books are full of ideas that are based in fact but also have a literary quality that makes them relatable, memorable, and enjoyable. They do not consist of a list of bare facts.
  4. Living books help develop a person’s moral imagination. When we read truth, goodness, and beauty in books, we accumulate that knowledge over time and begin to recognize it in our own world. This is not to be confused with patronizing and didactic stories that tell the reader what to think or how to “be good.”

There are some misconceptions about living books that I will try to correct.

  • Some think a living book has to be a work of fiction, but living books can also be nonfiction. There are many living science books, for example, such as The Storybook of Science and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
  • Sometimes people get confused and think that all historical-fiction books are living books, but this is inaccurate. Although they may have one author and tell a story, a great many historical-fiction books are poorly written and/or void of ideas. You can, for example, read a story set in ancient Egypt that is just a glorified romance novel.
  • Not all living books give you the feeling that you just learned a bunch of stuff. The ideas readers encounter in books can be understated. Living books encourage their readers to think and feel.

Is there a place for non-literary books? Yes. Reference books, such as encyclopedias, atlases, and almanacs, can provide a reference for information. No one, of course, wants to read one of those cover-to-cover. Books like the DK Eyewitness series that are full of pictures can also be used as a reference to ideas a student is reading in a living book. I do know kids that would read those cover-to-cover, and though they may be actually reading the words, what they are really doing is taking in all the pictures.

What about low-quality books? Books with no literary or reference merit and are void of ideas are often called “twaddle.” This is also a subjective term because getting an idea from a book is a subjective experience. I think of it as a sliding scale, honestly. Some books are just poorly written with no interesting vocabulary or turns of phrase — that’s one strike. Some books are not thought-provoking and just rehash some tired old storyline with no spark of imagination– strike two. And, of course, steer clear of textbooks written by committee or by a person who is contemptuous of the book’s subject — strike three. You’re out.

There is a whole market of twaddle trying to reach out and grab reluctant young readers. These are your princess-fairy-unicorn books for girls and your gross-out books for boys. I’m a little more open-minded about these than some Charlotte-Mason mamas. My theory is the whole reason these are twaddle is because they are boring and without ideas, so if my kid borrows one from the library and reads it, he’s going to figure out pretty quickly that it’s junk. Or, maybe there is something in this book that I didn’t see. For every 20 nameless potty humor books on the library shelf, there is a Captain Underpants, which I happen to think has some ideas with merit. I can see why my kids have all enjoyed reading about a Dr. Jekyl/Mr. Hyde who is both the controller and controlled by two friends who turn typical school drudgery into an adventure. So, maybe don’t condemn a book by its cover (or if it has the word “underpants” in the title).

Does it have to be a physical book? No, but … there is a value in the speed and attention a practiced reader can give to a physical book read silently to themselves. The average speed an adult reads in his or her head is about 250 words per minute. In contrast, the average speed of reading aloud is 150. Simple math will tell you that you can read more books if you read in your head.

What about audiobooks? I love audiobooks for a couple of reasons. First, I want to read more than I want to sit still. I listen to audiobooks while I drive, while I do chores, and while I exercise. Second, I love audiobooks for my reluctant reader. Long before we discovered his neurologically-based learning struggles, we realized that sitting and reading as a solitary activity was a challenge for him, but he would listen to audiobooks while building with Legos, playing Minecraft, and just staring at the ceiling fan. Incidentally, he will also listen to music while doing these activities. Like, hours and hours of music. I have never seen a person listen to music as much as this one child of mine. He has a strong audio-based learning ability. Maybe he was born that way, or maybe he developed that because visual input is difficult.

What about ebooks? Ebooks can be a real lifesaver when you can’t get a hold of a physical book. During the Corona-Quarantine our library wasn’t lending books, but it was lending ebooks. On a vacation it can be nice to bring a device rather than a bunch of books, and when you are in the mode of holding babies and toddlers all of the time, an ebook can help you read one-handed. Also, don’t forget that many quality books are in the public domain and perhaps not at the library, so your only recourse is to buy or download for free.

Undoubtedly, there is a place in our world for ebooks, but let me just give a plug here for physical books. When a person is scrolling on a tablet or phone, what do you think a child assumes that person is doing? Answer: Engaging in social media. How about when a person is wearing earbuds? Answer: Listening to music or a podcast. Now, what do you think a child thinks when he or she sees a person looking at an open book? Answer: That person must be reading. There’s no mistaking it. Taking time to read physical books in front of your child sends an important message that reading is a valuable use of time. In addition, many people agree that the experience of a physical book is more satisfying than that of an ebook.

In This Day and Age, Do I Need to Own Physical Books?

YES! Studies have shown that children who grow up with physical books in their home are more likely to (1) read books and (2) achieve a higher level of education. Is this surprising information? It doesn’t seem surprising to me, but I think maybe folks forget to continue to buy books as children get older. I mean, every baby shower includes books as gifts, but not every 13-year-old’s birthday party does.

Save the books! I don’t mean to be alarmist, but we are living in a dangerous age for books. If you value education, you need to be buying books to preserve them, especially historically important books, as quickly as your budget will allow. There is a growing feeling among powerful groups that books written in the past should be judged according to modern ideas, which of course is a historical fallacy. For example, the Board of the Association for Library Service to Children, which is a division of the American Library Association, recently voted to change the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award because Wilder’s childhood description of Native Americans was childish and dated. Works like Peter Pan and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer also use dated and childish terminology for Native Americans and will likely be taken from shelves, placed on restriction, or simply not replaced when the book is damaged or lost. The same fate may also soon apply to books like Gone With the Wind, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and To Kill a Mocking Bird, all of which use dated terminology for African Americans or quote characters with undesirable beliefs. Erasing history (even when it’s wrong) rather than discussing it head-on is a dangerous path that has been taken before, and throwing out entire books because they don’t conform to a presentist mindset is tragic. Save the books!

How do I know which books to own? This is a valid question, and it’s going to differ from person to person. Personally, I think every household with children should strive to own many classic children’s books. Recognizing classics “in the wild,” such as at a library sale or a garage sale or a used bookstore, is an acquired skill, but it’s a valuable one. For those working long hours and earning a healthy income, check out Barnes & Noble’s Classics for Kids. It’s a whole line of brand new editions of famous classics. For the rest of us siphoning off grocery money to buy books, a good way to know what used books to buy is to follow a recommended booklist like one found in Honey for a Child’s Heart or Ambleside Online’s free read list. I like to look for editions illustrated by well-known illustrators like Garth Williams, Robert Ingpen, Gyo Fujikawa, and Ernest Shepard. No matter what list you follow for classic children’s books, you’re going to find that they overlap, which is good. A book that is recommended repeatedly is probably a good one. In addition to classics, there are many good books (such as Little House on the Prairie, Charlotte’s Web, and The Wizard of Oz) that were written during America’s “golden age” of children’s literature (the late 1800s and early 1900s) but are not quite old enough to be considered classics. Sadly, there are relatively few “good” books being published today — but there are some! There has to be, right? Tell me about some modern children’s books you love in the comments.

Should I Read Aloud to Kids Who Can Already Read?

Absolutely. Not only is reading aloud a bonding experience but also sharing a story with your child (even when he’s taller than you) gives you a shared lens through which to see the world and vocabulary with which to describe it. Worriers are “Piglets,” mopers are “Eyores,” rash people are “Tiggers,” and so on. Stories give us ways to cope with the real world. There really are starving children in the world — just like Charlie Bucket. There are animals who are abused by their owners — just like Black Beauty. There are rulers who want to increase their power — just like Sarumon — but there are also true friends who will help you overcome the evil in the world — just like Samwise, Frodo, Pippin, and Merry. Also, it must be said that many of the best stories are above a child’s reading level for most of their childhood. Don’t make them wait until they can read it themselves to enjoy these formative books! Read to them now!

Until next time, I’m reading:

Novels/Biographies:

Moderately challenging books:

Stiff books:

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