BY LIZZIE SMITH
Trivial or foolish speech or writing; nonsenseThe 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
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 in Rasselas, 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 AmblesideOnline 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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