I’m glad you asked.
A living book, in short, is a book written by an author who is both passionate and knowledgeable about a subject.
Textbooks, by contrast, are often written by well-meaning committees. The text is condensed and pre-digested, often accompanied by colorful illustrations, broken up into bite-sized sections, and followed by comprehension questions.
Living Books versus Textbooks
How can you tell the difference? (Other than the obvious, that is, and even then it’s not always obvious. Apologia Educational Ministries’ elementary level science books, for example, look a lot like textbooks while reading like living books.)
In the long run, the difference I’ve seen is that when our girls learn from living books, months later they can tell you about what they’ve learned. Years later, even.
Knowledge gained from textbooks, on the other hand, tends to fade quickly, right after the last comprehension question has been written out, or maybe following the quiz or test that comes at some point after the reading. (And review. Don’t forget review. Living books? For some reason, our girls remember what’s in living books without having to review the information.)
The Living Book Test
When buying books for learning here’s a quick test:
Open the book to a random page. Start reading. If it grabs your interest and you find yourself drawn to read further, it’s a good indicator.
If the book seems rather dull, give it another chance. Turn to another random page and read. If the book still seems dull to you, don’t you think your children might have the same reaction?
(I had a friend who used to use the “sniff test.” If a book smelled musty, she’d look into it. She was of the opinion that the older the book, the better written. Of course, that’s not true for all books. I’ve stuck my nose into some awfully boring old books. However, it does seem that the writers of earlier times were better educated, used better vocabulary, and wrote more vividly than a lot of today’s authors.)
Living books lend themselves well to narration. Narration, if you haven’t heard of it, is a method of “telling back” information you’ve heard or read or experienced. In that way, you organize the data in your brain. This deliberate method of storage leads to easier retrieval. What that means, is that you have to be able to understand the material in order to narrate effectively, and when you tell someone else about it, you place that understanding into long-term storage in your brain.
More on narration coming soon, in another page.