Thou must sit still at table long enough
To let digestion work, the which would fain
Have more assistance, for this food is tough.
Open thy mind; take in what I explain
And keep it there; because to understand
Is not to know, if thou dost not retain.
–Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy: III. Paradise
AmblesideOnline is very much an imitation of what Charlotte Mason was doing in her own schools. Books or portions of books were assigned, and they were lingered over for a term or a year. Miss Mason didn’t provide us with weekly breakdowns, but we can infer that the books were spread out in this way due to other factors, such as the idea that only a certain amount of time was spent on the readings per week, and that time included the time it took to narrate.
The question arises as to whether there is a reason — a good one, mind you — for spreading books out this way. Why can’t we just spend more time on Ivanhoe each week and be finished with it in 12 weeks instead of 36? Is it really important to go so slowly, to spend so much time on each book?
A good narration isn’t going to happen if my student is trying to narrate three chapters at once. And the reading of three chapters in a row would take us long past our scheduled ending time for any particular subject. If we go over on time, we either make our school day too long, or we have to cut something else.
The idea of a broad and generous education means not just that we read widely, but that we read widely throughout a given day and throughout each week. We are just. that. shy. of specialization.
Remember: all of Charlotte Mason’s principles balance each other. They work together to form a comprehensive whole. When books are broken down over a term, or over a year, this is simply what it looks like to implement her principles.
A Deeper Reason Why
After doing this now for a number of years, I’ve come to appreciate this practice on a much deeper level. The idea of meditation comes to mind here, and for good reason. In our recent Scholé Sisters commonplace book workshop after party, we talked about handwriting and about how the act of handwriting can work a passage from a book deep into us in a way that typing or cutting and pasting the information for future reference cannot.
There is something very special about spending a really long time on a book. And please note, I don’t think all books are worth doing this with, for sure. Not every book needs to be studied. I would only do this with school books — I’m not out to schedule and slow down my children’s free reading books. But the books that are worth meditating on and thinking about are proven so much more instructive when they are lingered over.
If each chapter had a powerful central idea, and I read three chapters without stopping, I consumed one idea after another, and had no time in between for my soul to be instructed by each individual idea.
I have some books that I read for years because something I read was so powerful that I just had to put the book down, that I might ponder for a time what I just read.
Lingering means we revisit these beautiful ideas, these most noble of characters, week after week for a term, or a year — and sometimes even more! Having read books both ways, I can now say that it is a completely different experience to spend this kind of time on a book.
Book Clubs: A Practical Application
My local CM group has actually applied these principles to our club. So whereas most book clubs I’ve heard of read a book a month, ours reads a chapter — or sometimes only half a chapter. This is a very deliberate choice. If we’ve chosen a worthy book, there is so much in these books, and to spend only one night discussing a book that is worth discussing chapter by chapter is to miss so much of what the book has to offer us.
The time we’ve had to ask hard questions of the text and of each other has been immensely rewarding. And, honestly, many an overwhelmed mama finds it easier to read a chapter a month than to read a book a month. To slow it down makes a book club accessible to less bookish people — and having less bookish people in your group is something I can’t recommend highly enough. I have learned so much from people who do not always have their heads in the clouds (or, at least, their noses in books) the way I do.
Why I Do This
When I first started out on this CM journey, I was a bit dubious over this type of pacing, I’ll admit. I liked to swallow books whole, and I didn’t see a problem with that. I had no concept of education as a search for wisdom, or that wisdom takes a sort of patience and revisiting that can’t fit into a rushed schedule very well.
But I had read enough Charlotte Mason that I decided to try it as an experiment. I resonated so much with other things that she said, that I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. I will try this, I thought, and if it turns out not to be worth it, this is a part of her practices that I will simply discard.
But then the years passed, and I found it all so rich that there was no way I was going to tamper with it. Everything worked together so nicely.
Miss Mason never said, “We do this — we spread books out and linger over them — because that is what is necessary if we wish to accomplish depth.” But this is, for me, the main thing. It’s why I got on board with it, and have remained on board with it, for so long.
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