Otago Book Group Celebrates 40 Years

Lala Frazer wrote to us about DUNED 002, which celebrated its 40th anniversary this year. Lala shares memories of books they've loved, discussions they've had, and how their perspectives and attitudes have been shaped by their reading.

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Reading the same book

Forty Years ago, the Dunedin 002 WEA book group started. Actually it already existed. In order to stay in touch once their children had gone to school, a group of mothers whose children had gone through play groups and Play Centre together, decided they would meet once a month for coffee. I was one of those people.  We found that it was easy in our busy lives to forego the meeting, so we decided to give it a purpose and make it a “Book Club”.  We would all read at least one book by the same author and then supposedly discuss it. The problem with that was that sometimes we had all read different books and discussion was therefore limited. The shyer ones did not like having to talk about a book to others, and then try and explain what it was about. I was an Adult Literacy Co-ordinator at the time, and the WEA was heavily involved in that.  At an AGM there was information about the WEA Book discussion groups, and that seemed to be perfect.  We would all have our own copy of the same book to read and discuss. 

A note on discussion notes

What is more there would be notes to assist us. Let’s be honest, we have rarely used the notes because we have brought to the book our own experienced lives. Only if we have run out of things to say, do we very occasionally go and look at the suggested questions.

Open minds

The very first book we read was I Heard the Owl Call My Name about the effect of living within a Canadian First Nations settlement on an English vicar. We decided that we would always include at least one book a year that reflected other customs and values than we had grown up with. I believe this has broadened our understanding of African, Asian, Muslim, Jewish and Maori cultures and suspect it has led to a greater tolerance and respect for others.  

Great NZ reads

New Zealand novels have always been a mainstay of our reading. The books that initially stood out for me were Maurice Gee’s Plumb and Meg the first two of a trilogy that mirrored a way of thinking that particularly reflected the NZ environment and cultural values, and led us to query the effect of some of those. Although even then, age differences meant that as individuals we offered a different take on what was happening. Younger members could not understand the pressure that older ones had experienced to have an illegitimate child adopted or to change one’s religion, and sometimes even considered such things in a particular book to be unrealistic.

Books that changed us

Often the books over which we disagreed led to the most interesting discussion. Normally it is reasoned debate, respecting the other person’s point of view, but I remember particularly that Sylvia Ashton Warner’s book Spinster led to very heated argument with raised voices from those who loved it and those who hated it. 

Non-fiction books are the ones most likely to not be finished by all members and also possibly the ones we might not pick up off the shelf at the library. However, looking back, non-fiction books are the ones that often had the greatest impact. For instance, Brighter than a Thousand Suns about the development of nuclear fission explained clearly how it worked and why we should never use it again.  Following that we wrote submissions as a group and several of us became politically active. Another book that stands out is Against Our Will by Susan Brownmiller, which changed our views on rape to being about power rather than sex, especially with its extensive examples during war, and how victim blaming operates. While some of her arguments have been queried, this viewpoint continued to influence how we viewed rape when it appeared in the books we were reading. We have made it a policy to include two non-fiction books a year in our selection.

A space for women

The book group made two attempts to integrate men into our group.  In both cases they were husbands who always read the Book Club book and were keen to join.  However, in both cases, the wives felt that their husbands not only dominated the discussion but they and the group felt inhibited by their presence.  It did lead to Men’s groups being formed.  The first one they played chess and the second one they watched movies. Neither chose to read books!

Book club has always been a safe place to talk about experiences that have happened in the past or are impacting on our lives now, with the understanding that confidences do not go beyond the group.  A book has often prompted personal details about mental health problems, death (including suicide), rape, adoption, abortion, gender roles, illness (for instance in the days when one did not talk about cancer) and aging (including dementia). If current, it can lead to extra practical support for the person. Just the fact that others have experienced the same is comforting. 

Membership through the years

Over the years, the membership has always been fluid. Since 2000, there have been 45 members with an average of 15 members each year, but this does not include the previous years when the catalogues were not online.  Members have died. Many have moved away. At one point the membership became so large that we no longer fitted in a living room, and we split into two groups. These days we limit the numbers. For many years we operated a waiting list and then a “Casual List”. The casual members had to get their own copy from the library but were welcome to come along to the meetings.

It has been a great way for newcomers to meet others and become part of the community – more difficult if you are working and your children are not at preschool. Many of us grew up in other countries and that experience adds to the richness of discussion, as well as allowing immigrants to meet “New Zealanders”.

In the early days we chose from printed catalogues which were passed around, and until 2001 we were still ringing around or dropping a note in letterboxes to remind people about the upcoming meeting and its venue. Over the years we have read 447 books that a previous member and I have recorded. 

Guilt-free zone

The good thing about Book Club is that you can tell yourself (and others), “I HAVE to read this book for Book Club” and not feel guilty about all the other things you SHOULD be doing!