The Notting Hill Napoleons:
Christian Book Club Extraordinaire
by Denny Hartford
A successful book club is one that provides intellectual stimulation, motivation and accountability – and yet which is also a lot of sheer fun. And one of the most successful is the Notting Hill Napoleons, a Christian literary society which has (for almost 20 years) been a source of rich blessings for its members. One Saturday night a month the Notting Hill Napoleons gather in one of the member’s living rooms for their regular meeting. The Napoleons are all long time friends whose common participation in pro-life ministries brought them together years before they started the book club. All of them were readers. They had college degrees, were dedicated Bible students, and were lovers of all kinds of books. A few were writers. Nevertheless, there’s no doubt they’re all stronger and more perceptive readers now as the years of reading, reflecting and discussing have effectively honed their skills. And though mysteries, biographies, history and Bible studies are still avidly read by individual members, the Napoleons know that the book club has spurred them to read more quality literature than they would have ever imagined.
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 had in mind 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. Among the works we chose in those early years were those of Charles Dickens, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, G.K. Chesterton,Sir Walter Scott, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Alexandre Dumas, Evelyn Waugh, Leo Tolstoy and William Shakespeare. 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 was that reading a book for a discussion with like-minded friends was a much more enriching, enjoyable experience than reading it for any school report.
However, I can almost hear some of you asking, “How can anyone find the 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. The Notting Hill Napoleon members also have jobs, families, church responsibilities, and numerous other interests. They also remain quite involved in pro-life activities with Vital Signs Ministries and the AAA Center for Pregnancy Counseling. But two important changes have occurred since the inception of the club.
1) The Napoleons have all increased their reading speed and comprehension. And 2) They have all decreased their time spent in watching television and reading inferior stuff. And it’s comforting to know that even for those who have less time or who read at a pace which would prohibit getting through War and Peace in a month, there is 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 get started. Consensus is the key to success here. 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 clubs might opt for politics or history or perhaps a mix of genres. Many years ago, Vital Signs Ministries created a reading program which has focused 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 and Francis Schaeffer. And the schedule for that program is really flexible. The evening discussions usually meet quarterly but we’ve had another group which found it more convenient to have a luncheon discussion over bagels.
What else can you get out of an effective book club? How about ongoing education? The conquest of “giant books” that heretofore cowed you into fear? And 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? A Christ-centered literary fellowship can be a tremendous help in your desires to be a more interesting, more winsome and more effective spiritual warrior.
“On The Lighter Side”
Although the Notting Hill Napoleons are quite serious about the discussion of each month’s book, there is never a shortage of fun. Indeed, they go out of their way to create activities that keep their literary society light and festive. For instance, delicious desserts are a regular part of each meeting and they are often styled according to the respective books we’re reading for the month. There were croissant pastries for Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, Czechoslovakian kolaches for Cather’s My Antonia, scones and tea for Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, and “monster” cookies for Shelly’s Frankenstein. There was once even a full-scale theme dinner to celebrate our reading of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.
The Napoleons have created their own stationery, made T-shirts with their unusual club insignia, and encouraged each other with occasional writing exercises. Most significant and memorable of all, the Notting Hill Napoleons celebrate the kick-off of the Christmas season together with a weekend stay at an out-of-town bed and breakfast inn where music, prayer, worship, and sightseeing combine with their discussion of the year’s Charles Dickens book.
"My Napoleon Favorites"
Every year of the Notting Hill Napoleons’ 19-year existence has included a Charles Dickens novel. (Yes, we’re on second readings now.) Other authors who have frequently shown up in our rota have been Sir Walter Scott, G.K. Chesterton, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Nevil Shute, Jeff Shaara, and William Shakespeare. The following are my personal Top 10 from our long run.
1. Bleak House by Charles Dickens
2. Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas
3. The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton
4. Cancer Ward by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
5. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
6. Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
7. The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens
8. Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
9. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
10. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens