Wednesday, May 06, 2015

The Notting Hill Napoleons: A Christian Book Club Extraordinaire

A successful book club is one that provides intellectual stimulation, motivation, and accountability. But, good grief, it had better be fun too!

And, with those considerations, one of the most successful of all is the Notting Hill Napoleons, a literary society which has (for 23 years and counting) been a very rich source of blessing for its members.

The Napoleons started back in 1992 when Claire and I asked a few reading friends to join us in a monthly book discussion.  The club we proposed was one that would concentrate on quality novels; that is, books by talented writers who examined the most important human values and ideals.  We especially sought novels of literary richness that would sharpen our own thinking and communicating skills. Therefore, among the novels we chose in those early years were ones written by Charles Dickens, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, G.K. Chesterton, Sir Walter Scott, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Alexandre Dumas, Evelyn Waugh, Leo Tolstoy, Walter Scott, Willa Cather, and William Shakespeare. Now, many of these authors had already been read by at least a few of the Napoleons, but usually only as a school project in our distant past. One of the quickest lessons we learned in our new club was that reading a book for a discussion with like-minded friends was ever more enriching and enjoyable than reading it for any school report.

All of the friends we invited to participate were dedicated Bible students, family-oriented, and involved in a variety of interests and ministries. Most of them were or had been teachers. More relevant, they were readers...readers of all kinds of books.  Nevertheless, whatever our reading amounts and skills were at the start, there is no doubt we are all stronger and more perceptive readers now because of the years of disciplined reading, the practice of reflection, and the talents in literary criticism derived from all of our book discussions.

And though we still read mysteries, biographies, history, politics, pop culture, and Bible studies, I think all the Napoleons would agree that the book club has spurred them to read much more classic literature than they would have ever done on their own.

However, I can almost hear some of you asking, “How can anyone find time to read War and Peace and still go to work, feed the kids, and put the cat out?”  Believe me, it can be done. Remember, the Notting Hill Napoleon members also have jobs, families, church responsibilities, numerous other interests, and ministry responsibilities. It comes down to two keys. 1) The Napoleons have all increased their reading speed and comprehension. And 2) We have all decreased the time spent in watching television and reading inferior stuff.

Also, for those of you who have less time or who read at a pace which would prohibit getting through War and Peace in a single month, there is a very simple solution.  Just make your book club one which meets every other month or even every quarter.  Any schedule or format that yields an increase in profitable reading and Christian fellowship is well worth it.

How to choose books?  That’s a problem that has ended many book clubs before they ever really got started.  The Napoleons understand that creating as much of a consensus as possible is paramount.  The members must have a common vision of what they want to read.  Simply using someone else’s reading list or even awarding each member a slot usually won’t do it.  Based upon our backgrounds and personal tastes, the Notting Hill Napoleons chose classic novels as our focus and over time we developed an election process which stresses consensus.

Other book clubs might opt for politics or history or perhaps a mix of genres. For instance, many years ago Vital Signs Ministries created a reading program which focuses on non-fiction: history, culture, religion, etc.  Among the authors we’ve read in this program are Chuck Colson, Whittaker Chambers, Randy Alcorn, Joni Eareckson-Tada, Nancy Pearcey, and Francis Schaeffer.  The schedule for that program is also a lot more flexible than the Notting Hill Napoleons.
What else can you get out of an effective book club? How about ongoing education? Or the conquest of “giant books” that heretofore overwhelmed you?  Don’t forget the development of conversational skills, critical thinking, and insights into legitimate literary criticism rather than those snide and heavy-handed techniques you learned in college.

And, not to be undervalued in the least, is the sheer enjoyment which comes from a successful literary club.  It’s all good.  Indeed, every Notting Hill meeting is a party, even when the discussion itself is pretty heavy.  We are good friends who have become even closer through the fellowship of the book club and who are more effective Christians because of the stimulation, accountability, and helpfulness we provide each other.

The Lordship of Jesus Christ should extend to every area of life – stretching, sharpening, and better equipping His servants to represent righteousness in our darkened world.  A Christian book club can be a part of that discipleship.  So why not consider getting involved in such a group yourself?