Book Club during Lockdown: ReadNZ interviews BDS

Read an interview of BDS Promotions person, Renee Blackburn, as she talks to ReadNZ about how New Zealand's book clubs are cope with lockdowns, what they're reading, and why they joined Book Discussion Scheme. 

This article was originally published on ReadNZ in April 2020.

Open Books Open Minds

Book Discussion Scheme has been connecting people who love reading for 47 years. Even under lockdown conditions, keen Kiwi book groups are finding ways to connect through reading.

We talked to Renee Blackburn about what the organisation offers.

Kia ora Renee, what do you guys do?

We serve the book groups of New Zealand! We started in a Christchurch garage in 1973 as an off-shoot of the CWEA (Canterbury Workers Education Association) and have since become an independent charitable trust operating nationwide. To this day we still retain our membership as a WEA.

Our motto is “Open Books Open Minds” and we are on a mission to promote the personal and societal benefits of group reading for a fairer, kinder, happier New Zealand.

How does the Book Discussion Scheme work?

We have several different versions of our programme designed to meet specific community needs, but the main one works like this:

  • Rally: Form a book group of between seven and 12 people.
  • Register: Membership is $70 per person per year (but if you’re the organiser/convenor you only pay $35). This gets your group: ten books per year, one a month excluding Dec/Jan (but you can get an optional holiday read during this period); professionally prepared discussion notes; nationwide delivery.
  • Read: You select 25 books from an extensive catalogue of fiction and non-fiction books, of which you will receive ten throughout the year. We provide enough copies of a title for everyone to read the same book at the same time.
  • Review: Meet to discuss the book. This is the part where you really get to enrich your reading experience by hearing different perspectives and learning from others in your group.

How popular are book groups in Aotearoa? And why do you think people join them?

The BDS alone caters for over 1,300 groups all across New Zealand — that’s roughly 13,000 people. And that doesn’t account for people who might have their own self-organised group, or be part of more informal/book-chat type groups such as many libraries around the country offer. People can also access a wide variety of book clubs online now too…I think in general humans need connection — a shared love of books and the way they inspire and move us is a great way to facilitate that. We recently surveyed our BDS book groups and there were three key reasons people joined a group:

It broadens their reading by exposing them to books they might not otherwise have come across or chosen.
It generates lively and meaningful discussion, which helps them appreciate what they’ve read on a deeper level.
It adds a social element to reading, either helping people make new friends or stay in regular contact with old ones.

At the moment, your member groups are finding various ways to stay connected with each other, from Skype to email chains. Can you tell us more about that?

Yes! Our groups are doing a great job of finding ways to maintain social connection while practising social distancing. Zoom has been particularly popular because it doesn’t require you to have an account to participate in the online meeting. A convenor can just send everyone a link to click and voila! suddenly everyone’s on screen with a beverage in hand and chatting about the book as usual.

The staff at BDS worked really hard in the lead-up to lockdown to get as many books out to groups as possible. Older members, in particular, have said how much they appreciated having a book dropped in their letterbox by their convenor (we suggested they apply the 72-hour rule and handwashing if hand-delivering books) as it was so beneficial to their mental well-being.

What books are your book groups reading these days? And is there a most-popular title?

A lot of groups are keen to get their hands on the latest titles as we continuously add books to the catalogue throughout the year. Some of the most highly-rated recently added titles are: Educated by Tara Westover; Born a Crime by Trevor Noah; The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton; and The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. There are also what we might call all-time favourites that continue to be popular with our groups: The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting; Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings by Tina Makereti, The Dry by Jane Harper. Find me Unafraid, The Boys in the Boat and The Girl with Seven Names are some really popular non-fiction reads. There are heaps more on the Groups Love page on the BDS website if anyone’s interested.

What advice would you have for someone wanting to start a new book group?

Other than: “Just do it!” I think the best advice I can give is think carefully about whether book group is for you. If you don’t like reading another person’s choices, or aren’t willing to give books outside your ‘comfort genres’ a go, you risk either becoming a dictatorial convenor or just resenting being ‘told what to read’. I can guarantee you and your group won’t ‘enjoy’ everything you read per se, but it’s often the things you dislike about a book create the best discussion! You just need to be up for a bit of a reading adventure, for everything else you’ve got BDS — we make the logistics of starting and running a group really straightforward and stress-free.

You’re the promotions person at BDS, but I assume you’re a reader, too! What are your favourite types of books, and what are you reading these days?

I got back into reading in a big way when I joined the BDS team and I’m surprising myself with the wide-range of books I’m enjoying. I’ve been gravitating towards a lot of non-fiction: I found Michelle Obama’s Becoming a fascinating read that compelled me to go and learn more about american politics; Factfulness by Hans Rosling was an eye-opener in terms of how I view world progress.

As for fiction I recently finished The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society which can only be described as ‘delightful’ (can’t say the same for the movie version, I’m afraid) and I’m currently trying out the slightly mystical Once Upon a River which so far has an excellent premise (a drowned girl mysteriously comes back to life!) and it’s written in a lovely style.

If you had one message to Kiwi readers, what would it be?

Stay connected. Literature has the power to teach, inspire and spark joy in you and those around you, but it’s the sharing that gets all of those inner experiences out into the world where they start to have real impact.

Learn more about how to start a book group or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. a free information and enrolment pack today.