Part One is here. Part Two is here.
Charlotte Mason never wanted to give too-pat answers about anything. By her ambivalence here about listing particular books, she unintentionally fostered a long-standing gulf between those who say that "Charlotte Mason refused to list particular books for children so there is no such thing as a Charlotte Mason curriculum," and those who point to the fact that she did indeed spearhead a complete curriculum, with a long list of books, some of which is included in this same volume under the heading of work suitable for a twelve-year-old.
But in general, in the sense that she is meaning here, she leaves the choice of school books open to the (assumed) educated and intelligent adult who should be able to make those choices. Even in those days, though, one imagines the quick reaction--"Make it easier for us! Give us some examples!" She insists that "we cannot make any hard and fast rule––a big book or a little book, a book at first-hand or at second-hand; either may be right provided we have it in us to discern a living book, quick [meaning full of life, not speedy], and informed with the ideas proper to the subject of which it treats."
She wants us to look for books that, like the Bible stories read to De Quincey, have the power of "giving impulse and stirring emotion." What seems to matter is whether a book has the power to awaken ideas, stir up children's curiosity, help them to look outside themselves and see the world in new ways. "The ideas it holds must each make that sudden, delightful impact upon their minds, must cause that intellectual stir, which mark the inception of an idea."
So our pile of good books is something like a mine full of many kinds of treasures, although we can't always be sure which ones are going to be wanted or picked up at any time. And the work of mining them is what each student has to do for him or herself. Here is where Charlotte does get specific, because it is clear that this "labour of thought" is a complex task. She wants the books to be used in such a way that the students can "dig their knowledge, of whatever subject, for themselves out of the fit book." "He must generalise, classify, infer, judge, visualise, discriminate, labour in one way or another, with that capable mind of his, until the substance of his book is assimilated or rejected, according as he shall determine; for the determination rests with him and not with his teacher." The "single, careful reading," here described as "which the pupil should do in silence," although we know that some books were also read aloud, is key, as is requiring the child "to narrate its contents after a single attentive reading."
If you can read attentively, you should be able to give the main points of a description. You should be able to tell a series of events in the right sequence. You should be able to explain how someone argued a point. You are a reporter! You are a lawyer! You are a historian! You are a Scout studying first aid, and what you are reading and remembering about snake bites or burns will save someone's life. You are a business person and if you miss something in a report--or fail to report it yourself--you could lose a lot of money or get fired. You are, potentially, the mayor or the governor or the president, and if you can't make sense of the reports on a situation, and communicate those points to your people, you are going to put everyone in danger or, again, cost them lots of money and trouble. Or you just might not get re-elected.
To engage with the book (or, as Adler puts it, to play ball with the author, learning to catch what he throws); to pay close enough attention to verbally map out a, b, and c for someone else, and to do it "intelligently," is a power which even adult scholars "labour to acquire." This is true literacy; this, Charlotte Mason says, separates readers from non-readers.
Part Four will finish the chapter.