This article was originally published on 5 January 2023 by Carly Gooch on Stuff.
The sausage rolls are in the oven and a cheese board is out ready to pick over as book group members chat about the title they had one month to read.
And all the members are men.
But when it comes to deconstructing novels, women are out-reading the men in groups by a landslide.
Book Discussion Scheme (BDS) in New Zealand has 13,000 book groups across the country, and of those, only 22 are men-only groups, with 12 of those from the Canterbury region. Some have mixed genders, but those are also a minority.
Avid reader Ian Falconer, of Christchurch, joined BDS in September 2021. He convenes a group of nine men who began as strangers, but who he now considers friends.
“It was so great to hear a group of men laughing and having a great time”, he said of a recent meeting held at his home.
“I don’t have a lot of close male friends, I think a lot of guys are like that”.
“A bit of a bond” had built up among the crew, he said.
“It’s more than just reading books — we’re just starting to realise that now.”
The book group initiative sees groups come together monthly, at either their homes or a neutral venue to talk about a book they all read, or maybe some didn’t.
Falconer said one of the last books was “one of the few books I haven’t finished”.
The books are chosen from an extensive BDS catalogue at the start of the year, most of the time, each member selects a few preferences, the list is compiled, then sent to head office for the group to randomly receive one of those book monthly throughout the year before being sent back.
Many of the groups are started up with friends, who often bring their friends, or members are bolstered by people searching the BDS site for their closest group, joining from outside the circle.
Falconer said he saw an ad by BDS in the local rag for anyone wanting to join a book group. “I thought s... yeah, I could, then I forgot all about it”.
About two months later, he rang to inquire about it, and the BDS event was on that night, he said.
He made it, and by the end of the evening, he was sent off with a book to read and strangers who would soon become friends.
The sausage rolls and cheeseboard come out when Falconer hosts, but in David Grant’s book group, they have a much more creative approach to the nibbles.
“We would turn up with refreshments and food set on the book.”
That’s included North Korean cuisine, Russian vodka and Mexican food.
Grant was able to assemble a group at the start of the year with friends from his various hobbies.
“It was quite a good idea to sit down with my mates and have a chat. Not so much about books...the books provide an opportunity for mates to get together.”
Even though the group sprouted from friends of Grant’s, many knew each other, and the group had solidified connections.
“We enjoy meeting, and quite look forward to it.”
But while some enjoyed the camaraderie, he said other friends he had asked to join had “flatly refused”, saying they didn’t read any more.
“It was a fearful thing.”
According to the Read NZ National Reading Survey, since 2017, the percentage of females reading has remained steady at 91%, while males have dropped from 84% in 2017 to 79% in 2021.
The comparison for those involved in BDS groups is greater still, with 11,866 females onboard and just 499 men.
There was some anecdotal feedback that men saw books as “a source of knowledge, not so much a connection”, said BDS promotions manager Renee Blackburn.
For men, it’s more about “what can I learn”, she said, while women immediately saw the benefits of talking about a book.
But men were usually “surprised how much they enjoy it once they got started”, she said.
Grant said love them or hate them, the books discussions were just a by-product of getting together with mates — the books usually bringing the banter to “money, politics and power”.
Except maybe one of the recent books none of them enjoyed.
“None of us liked it. We all felt that it was a little bit long-winded. The ladies group likes more emotive writing, and we’re saying: get on with the story.”