Myth: Twaddle and light reading are the same thing.

October 10, 2014

BY LIZZIE SMITH

Twaddle

Trivial or foolish speech or writing; nonsense
The Oxford Dictionary

Lately I’ve heard fellow CM educators lumping twaddle and light reading together.Sometimes they feel that twaddle is acceptable since CM speaks of the benefits of occasional light reading, or they feel guilty that they allow light reading, which must be rotting their brains. Puzzled by this seeming dichotomy, I searched through all 6 volumes of Charlotte Mason’s works to see if there was a difference, and was happy to find this quote.

A book may be long or short, old or new, easy or hard, written by a great man or a lesser man, and yet be the living book which finds its way to the mind of a young reader. … The master must have it in him to distinguish between twaddle and simplicity, and between vivacity and life. {School Education, p. 229}

There it is, from the mind of Miss Mason herself: Light reading and “twaddle” are two different things. In order that we might become more skilled at distinguishing “between twaddle and simplicity,” let’s take a closer look at precisely what Ms. Mason meant when referring to “twaddle.”

The first mention of twaddle in Charlotte Mason’s writings occurs in Part 5 of Home Education.

Diluted Knowledge. — But, poor children, they are too often badly used by their best friends in the matter of the knowledge offered them. Grown-up people who are not mothers talk and think far more childishly than the child does in their efforts to approach his mind. If a child talk twaddle, it is because his elders are in the habit of talking twaddle to him; leave him to himself, and his remarks are wise and sensible so far as his small experience guides him. Mothers seldom talk down to their children; they are too intimate with the little people, and have, therefore, too much respect for them: but professional teachers, whether the writers of books or the givers of lessons are too apt to present a single grain of pure knowledge in a whole gallon of talk, imposing upon the child the labour of discerning the grain and of extracting it from the worthless flood. {Home Education, p. 175}

Several other references through her writings come back to this issue of talking down to children, deliberately confining our interactions to what we believe they are capable of understanding.

When speaking of history books, she says:

[T]he children of educated parents are able to understand history written with literary power, and are not attracted by the twaddle of reading-made-easy little history books. {Home Education, p. 281}

Another example is:

‘That’s not a star, it’s a planet, Tom,’ with a little twaddle about how planets are like our earth, more or less, was all I had for his hungry wonder. {Formation of Character, p. 122}

And again:

It is inadvisable to put twaddling “goody-goody” story-books into the hands of the young people: a revulsion of taste will come, and then, the weakness of this sort of literature will be laid to the charge of religion. {Formation of Character, p. 211-212}

She also says:

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. {Parents and Children, p. 263}

Based on these references, I believe that when speaking of “twaddle,” Miss Mason frequently meant more than nonsense: she also meant “that which is purposefully dumbed down so that children may understand it.”

Light reading might call for a minimum of mental effort, but it still requires something of the reader. Twaddle leaves the mind stupefied and in need of recovery. To use a dietary analogy, light reading is a bowl of fruit. It has a necessary place within a balanced diet, nourishing the body when used in moderation. Twaddle is more like a box of Junior mints. The effects last beyond immediate gratification, and require time to efficiently work out of your system. They might taste grand, but when the pleasure is past you ache a bit, your moods are not quite under your control and your teeth hurt. Your mind might be capable of withstanding the effects of twaddle, but twaddle is never good for it.

In a rather detailed description of “twaddly books” and the mental deterioration to which they lead, she says:

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 “Mudie’s” lightest novels; 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. Scott is dry as dust, even Kingsley is “stiff.” We remain, though in another sense than that of the cottage dame, “poor readers” all our days. {Formation of Character, p. 215}

Let me offer a comparison here. I pulled two books from my shelves, one of which I would classify as twaddle and one which I would not. Can you figure out which is which?

“‘Draw the drapes when the sun comes in’,” read Amelia Bedelia. She looked up. The sun was coming in. Amelia Bedelia looked at the list again. “Draw the drapes? That’s what it says. I’m not much of a hand at drawing, but I’ll try.” So Amelia Bedelia sat right down and she drew those drapes.” {The Adventures of Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish}

Bunnies have long, strong feet. That helps them jump very far. Bunnies have long whiskers. Sometimes their little noses twitch! Bunnies eat green vegetables. They like lettuce and celery. But best of all, Bunnies love carrots. Bunnies eat their carrots every single day! {Fluffy Bunnies}

The differences between twaddle and light reading may seem subtle, but they’re important. Light reading can delight us, feed our minds so subtly that it doesn’t seem like much of a meal. But it is still nourishing food that gives us something. Twaddle rips out the difficult ideas and then explains everything. The worst twaddle uses nonsense and still explains it all.

Foran  excellent look at what, precisely, constitutes a “living book,”, I would urge you to read through chapters 15 and 16 of Charlotte Mason’s Volume 3, School Education. I’ll close with a short excerpt from those chapters.

Children’s Literature. — The subject of ‘Children’s Literature’ has been well threshed out, and only one thing remains to be said, — children have no natural appetite for twaddle, and a special literature for children is probably far less necessary than the book sellers would have us suppose. Out of any list of ‘the hundred best books,’ I believe that seventy-five would be well within the range of children of eight or nine. They would delight inRasselas, Eöthen would fascinate them as much as Robinson Crusoe, the Faëry Queen, with its allegory and knightly adventures and sense of free moving in woodland scenery, would exactly fall in with their humour. What they want is to be brought into touch with living thought of the best, and their intellectual life feeds upon it with little meddling on our part. {School Education, p. 122}

Lizzie Smith is a second generation homeschooler who is seemingly allergic to shoes. She lives out in the boonies with one long-suffering husband, four barefoot children, a wide variety of animals and a glorious view of the stars. Her discovery of Charlotte Mason has resulted in addiction to the Ambleside Online Forums, an increase in her book collection, and a solid educational path for her homeschool. Lizzie can be found at Stronghaven, where she explains how she is slowly learning how much she doesn’t know.

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5 Comments

  • Reply RaeAnna November 4, 2018 at 5:17 am

    I agree that twaddle is unnecessary but I do think that sometimes it is subjective. I also like this quote from Volume 6 on pages 191-192:

    “We do not say that children should never read well-intentioned second-rate books, but certainly they should not read these in school hours by way of lessons. From their earliest days they should get the habit of reading literature which they should take hold of for themselves, much or little, in their own way. As the object of every writer is to explain himself in his own book the child and the author must be trusted together, without the intervention of the middle-man. What his author does not tell him he must go without knowing for the present. No explanation will really help him, and explanations of words and phrases spoil the text and should not be attempted unless children ask, What does so and so mean? when other children in the class will probably tell.”

    • Reply Brandy Vencel November 6, 2018 at 12:25 pm

      I totally agree with you that some of this is subjective! Love this quote; thank you for sharing. ♥

  • Reply Cecily Exner August 9, 2018 at 9:52 am

    Wow, how funny! It was the Fluffy Bunny book, and it’s friend, Playful Puppies, that started me on my journey to discover the concept of living books, and then Charlotte Mason. I was so appalled at the writing in the books my children were given. At the same time, the term twaddle seems to be thrown around so lightly, it’s disheartening. Thanks for expanding on the idea.

  • Reply The Summer 2015 Mother Culture Reading List | Afterthoughts July 25, 2018 at 4:30 pm

    […] we don’t want to read twaddle, not even here. But sometimes we get confused about twaddle. Twaddle and light reading are not the same thing. These books are chosen for good stories, wisdom, beauty, and pleasure. You’ll have to […]

  • Reply Kira September 17, 2015 at 9:53 pm

    I found this post to be so helpful and well written. It really helped me understand twaddle, and specifically what it’s not, which I needed since that word gets thrown around so much in CM circles. It also helped me understand why I’ve always had an aversion to what I call ‘fluffy’ Christian fiction books, even though I’m absolutely a Christian. They insult my intelligence and feel falsely preachy and I find myself rolling my eyes rather than enjoying the story. That for me is grown-up twaddle. Thanks for a thought provoking post!

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