Rhys Brookbanks with an insider’s view on the Book Discussion Scheme, a not-for-profit organisation providing books to more than 850 book groups.
I work part-time at the Book Discussion Scheme (BDS), and every morning, bundles slide down the conveyor-belt from the courier. Some are bubble-wrapped, some tied with string – last week, there was even one swaddled in kids’ birthday paper. Facebook and texting may be destroying English, e-readers might be changing the medium, but our love-affair with books shows no sign of cooling.
With 897 groups around the country, up 150 per cent since 2000, the BDS is growing. This means an ever-increasing number of books to unpack
(31,232 across 615 titles), place on the shelves, pick off as requested, and ship out again. It’s like watching a slow symphony on a hi-fi as the large, coloured blocks of books move up and down on the beige shelves.
The BDS has been operating since 1973 and, along with the Australian Council for Adult Education (which it will soon surpass in size), is thought to be one of only two nationally-based reading organisations in the world.
One of books’ best qualities, which lies at the heart of the BDS, is their ability to be passed on. This was highlighted at the recent opening of the new premises, as a grey-suited Joe Bennett graced a coffee-table stage, handed his beer to a woman beside him (“Thanks, Jeeves”) and thundered:
The greatest piece of technology going is the book. I mean, drop it in the bath, nothing lost. The disposability of books, the ability to give books over; if there’s a greater gift of love than handing a book over, I don’t know. It’s a shared humanity.
As manager Barbara Brown says, the best feature of working at the BDS is “the books, the books, the books, and the people.” The mix of volunteers and paid staff (all women, except for this writer) listen to National Radio, discuss recent reads, and ask anyone (courier, plumber or painter) who their favourite Lord of the Rings character is. A huge number of people are involved in the scheme, including book reviewers, discussion-notes writers and book-group convenors.
Brown is very much in charge – passionate about books and words in general, she writes crosswords for The Press and New Zealand Catholic magazine. “I’ve always loved books,” she says:
I remember my brother was ill and we were very interested in horse racing and I got him going on Dick Francis. A book gives you something to talk about. It’s an easy way to meet people. We see reading as an avenue to education, but community is just as important.
The BDS is determined to keep up with technology. Its new website will include an online catalogue and a space where each group can browse, change their details and the books they want, and see when books are sent out. As for e-readers, Brown says she’s looked at them, “but that whole area is developing quite a bit at the moment so we’re waiting to see what will happen.”
Chairman Murray Jones says:
The idea is that by moving to the bigger premises, and getting new software and a flasher website, we are positioning ourselves economically to be in a position to promote books, reading, and community, to sectors that at present have little involvement in this.
These sectors include men, those living in rural areas (45 per cent of members live in the four main centres), and ethnic and socio-economic groups where reading is less prevalent.
The BDS is also working with the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind to provide talking books, while Lincoln High School became the first to sign up to the scheme’s school programme. Head of English Liz McNeill hopes the Lincoln students will be able to draw thematic and stylistic links between school and BDS texts in their scholarship essays at the end of the year.
Although 75 per cent of members are over 50, Brown says this is changing: “From Christchurch, face-to-face, we’ve noticed that groups applying now are quite a bit younger, [with] more mid-30s mums.” This would certainly be true of Christchurch 152, who kindly invited me to one of their recent meetings. In a Spreydon bungalow the group of 30 to 50 year-old women discussed Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, basking in the warmth of a log burner, laughter, and the company of good friends: “It’s a statement on society, about self-knowledge.” “I thought Anna a spoilt brat and narcissistic.” “I thought it was strikingly modern … but I just like an argument.”
Anna Gruczynska, the group’s convenor, is Polish and married a Kiwi. Since its inception, the group has had members from Peru, the US, Germany and South Africa. Anna says that as well as providing an escape from baby-talk, it has helped her and the other expats to meet people:
A lot of us started in the book club soon after our children were born [which is] sometimes quite an alienating experience if you don’t have a lot of family around you. We were craving adult conversation and company, and not talking about nappies and babies and pureed foods.
Further south, Frazer Barton, a partner at Dunedin law firm Anderson Lloyd, has run two groups for the past six years:
What it’s done for me … it takes you out of your comfort zone and you can read something which you might not have picked off the shelf. [It] leads to some very lively discussion about topical issues thrown up by the book. For example, after The Kite Runner last year we had a big discussion about Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, in the valleys around Murchison a group of women aged 50 to 80 have been meeting at each others’ houses for 27 years. According to convenor Dot Bradley, the group is the only local one and used to meet on the day fresh fish came into town. “We meet in the afternoons. I’d have 10 or so cars at my place,” she says.
As Joe Bennett observed at the opening:
Why do people read? Well, probably the most important one is to know you’re not alone. I think it’s contact with people you otherwise wouldn’t be in contact with, and contact you don’t get in a polite social situation or down the boozer or whatever. It’s an intimacy that is otherwise unavailable to us.
It’s an intimacy that carries through behind the scenes as well. You can find the BDS on Christchurch’s Colombo St, behind the murals of three people reading. If you wander inside you can bet that on desks, under cups of tea, and flitting in and out of the courier-bay will be books. And plenty of discussion, too.