Educational Philosophy, Home Education, Mother's Education

How to Choose a Novel, How to Read a Novel

November 28, 2018 by Brandy Vencel

(Plus: Get Your FREE Mother Culture Habit Tracker!)

Even though I know winter here is laughable compared to many places, winter reading still holds a special place in my heart. It’s definitely cold enough to cozy up under a blanket with hot herbal tea by my side (or coffee if it’s earlier in the day!). With that said, even in winter it’s easy to let my mother culture habit slide — there’s so much to do!

This is why I love my Mother Culture Habit Tracker! ♥ Habit trackers in general increase my self-awareness. I often think I do things more frequently than is true. With the tracker, I am far more consistent. Not only that, my Mother Culture Habit Tracker also helps me vary my reading because I’m not just tracking the habit; I’m tracking the kinds of books I’m reading.

Let’s Talk About Novels

One of the categories for Mother Culture is novels. (You can read a broader take on Mother Culture here.) Charlotte Mason had some opinions on what to look for in a novel:

Perhaps the dramatists and novelists have done the most for our teaching; but not the works of every playwright and novelist are good ‘for example of life and instruction in manners.’ We are safest with those which have lived long enough to become classics; and this, for two reasons. The fact that they have not been allowed to die proves in itself that the authors have that to say, and a way of saying it, which the world cannot do without. In the next place, the older novels and plays deal with conduct, and conduct is our chief concern in life. Modern works of the kind deal largely with emotions, a less wholesome subject of contemplation. Having found the book which has a message for us, let us not be guilty of the folly of saying we have read it. We might as well say we have breakfasted, as if breakfasting on one day should last us for every day! The book that helps us deserves many readings, for assimilation comes by slow degrees. (pp. 10-11)

And:

The modern Psychical novel is rarely of use ‘for example of life and instruction in manners.’ It is too apt to accept persons as inevitable, to evade the question of Will, and to occupy itself with a thousand little traits which its characters manifest nolens volens. The way of the modern novel is to catch its characters and put them to disport themselves in a glass bowl, as it were, under observation.

And also:

Novels, again, are as homilies to the wise; but not if we read them merely for the tale. It is a base waste of time to read a novel that you can skip, or that you look at the last page of to see how it ends. One must read to learn the meaning of life; and we should know in the end, who said what, and on what occasion! The characters in the books we know become our mentors or our warnings, our instructors always; but not if we let our mind behave as a sieve, through which the whole slips like water. It would, of course, be a foolish waste of time to give this sort of careful reading to a novel that has neither literary nor moral worth, and therefore it is well to confine ourselves to the best — to novels that we can read over many times, each time with increased pleasure.

These are long quotes; let’s bullet point them out (yes I just verbed a noun).

What To Look For In a Novel

  • Classics. You can’t go wrong with these! If you’re new to novel reading, start with classics that “everyone” says “everyone” should read. They aren’t just safe bets; they’ll reveal what you’ve been missing without novels in your diet! With classics, you’re not reading through the latest novels trying to find one worthy gem. (I like to leave mining to the miners.) Instead, you’re in the jewelry store and everything has been sifted — it’s all worth your time.
  • Focused on conduct rather than emotion. This doesn’t mean it’s devoid of emotion. It simply means the novel isn’t focused on psychology. Action is being lived out in the books world rather than in the character’s emotional life.
  • Causes must have effects. This builds upon the previous point. Miss Mason wanted characters who made choices — choices that had consequences.
  • Not skippable. If it wouldn’t matter that you didn’t read it, that’s a clue that it’s probably not worth your time. Time (and properly stewarding it) was a big deal to Charlotte Mason. So much so that she makes me uncomfortable sometimes! I realize, though, that this is conviction — which means I should embrace it rather than try to shrug it off.
  • Vivid characters. Miss Mason says that these characters can be our mentors or our warnings. Weak novels are populated with characters that are neither. We’re not looking for stereotypical perfect heroes and heroines, or one-dimensional villains, but we are looking for people to admire and people to fear.
  • Worth reading again. This is one of the best tests. Of course you can only know if the book met this criteria after you are done. But still: if it passes, you’ll know you chose well. The richest books will beg you to read them again.

How to Read a Novel

I don’t mean this in a literary analysis sort of way. That is far to detailed for our purposes here — and highly unlikely to happen in the everyday life of a homeschooling mom. But Miss Mason’s general principles work well for us because we can train ourselves to read this way.

  • Read to learn the meaning of life. The best novels are teaching us something about the world, about reality, about the nature of man. Don’t just read to follow the plot; read to discover the embedded wisdom.
  • Narrate. Ugh, right? Well, no. Narration is a handy tool, even for mothers. Miss Mason says the characters will be our mentors or warnings, but not if we let our minds behave like sieves. I don’t know about you, but motherhood certainly predisposed me to Sieve Brain. Everything I read slipped right through if I wasn’t careful. Narration can take many forms — a conversation with a friend, a deliberate retelling to yourself, a blog post, etc. The point is that narration closes up the holes in the sieve so that your reading is more fruitful.
  • Read it again. “Assimilation comes by slow degrees,” and in the best novels there is so much goodness that it’s impossible to get it all the first time through.

Are you ready for your tracker?

I’m pleased to introduce you to the Winter 2019 Mother Culture Habit Tracker. Fill out the form below to grab it for free. Maritza redesigned the tracker for me and it’s so cute and cheerful — I just love it! Trackers are a wonderful way to keep up our good habits during the busy holiday season (as well as the post-holiday drag!).

Need some book titles to get you going?

I’ve published many book lists over the years. For today, I’ll just share one book from each of the categories that I’m reading right now:

Stiff Book: Against the Protestant Gnostics by Philip J. Lee (yes, I’m reading this again)

Moderately Easy Book: Atomic Habits by James Clear

Novel: Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Happy winter reading, my friends! ♥

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8 Comments

  • Reply Tiffany June 29, 2019 at 3:39 pm

    What do you think regarding so-called Christian novels? I’m really struggling here as I feel a lot of them are just fluff although there are a very few gems out there. I’ve been working on going through my bookshelves and I feel so strange giving away nearly all of my Chrisitan novels. What are your views on this?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel July 1, 2019 at 8:46 am

      I think there are valuable titles like there are in any modern genre — I really think *everything* has to be weeded through! 🙂 I wouldn’t feel weird about getting rid of bad writing, regardless of the genre. I have a number of more recent Christian novels on my shelf, but interestingly enough they are mostly fantasy — like the Wingfeather Saga. It seems like that is where some of the best writing is being done these days.

      • Reply Tiffany DeOs July 2, 2019 at 10:57 am

        I totally agree with you. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

  • Reply Helen June 16, 2019 at 9:07 am

    Is there a habit tracker but for the Mothers’ Education Course?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 17, 2019 at 9:23 am

      No! That’s a good idea, though. I wonder about just using the Mother Culture tracker but using more categories? I’ll have to think about the best way to set one up…

  • Reply The Summer 2019 Mother Culture Reading List! (Plus a Summer Reading Habit Tracker!) | Afterthoughts June 8, 2019 at 8:17 am

    […] these really need introduction? If anything says summer to my soul, it is a good novel. Click here for advice on choosing and reading a novel. Please remember that stories are powerful things. It’s important to fill your mind with good […]

  • Reply Mama Rachael December 1, 2018 at 8:03 pm

    I’ve been struggling with my reading of late. I’ve got 4 books going, but always feeling like I need something fiction. But unable to decide on anything. We picked up “A Christmas Carol” for Morning Time in December, and its a hoot! Never knew it had humor in it! So, I’m thinking to try other Dicken’s novels. I remember despising “Great Expectations” when I “read” it in high school; but maybe being older and wiser will help me appreciate Dicken’s writing now. Thanks for then encouragement to read fiction, I was starting to feel like a fluff with not wanting to read any of the non-fiction I had going.

    PS. got the schedule page… super excited about All. The. Things.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel December 3, 2018 at 9:57 am

      I thought I *hated* all things Dickens in high school, so maybe you really will appreciate him more now. I sure do!

      I usually adore non-fiction, but I start to crave novels when the weather gets colder and school breaks appear on the horizon. 😉

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