BDS Book Group WELL 124

2003 –

BDS Book Group WELL 124

2003 –

Theme: Sport and recreation

This essay written by Claire-Louise McCurdy and Hilary Lapsley was published online in Women together: a history of women's organisations in New Zealand in 2019.

Book clubs in New Zealand

New Zealand has a long history of people gathering in small groups to discuss meaningful books. From their New Zealand beginnings in 1915, the Workers’ Educational Associations (WEAs) set up study circles. The Canterbury WEA introduced its ‘box scheme’ in 1926, freighting wooden boxes of book sets and other resources around Canterbury and the West Coast. Other WEAs followed, with boxes being sent as far as the Chatham Islands [1]. In 1973 the WEA’s nation-wide Book Discussion Scheme (BDS) was founded, making available multiple copies of books to groups for a modest annual fee from each member.

By the 2000s, hundreds of book clubs (the total number is unknown), using the BDS or making their own arrangements, existed throughout New Zealand. Most were begun by friends, or people with a special interest, getting together in informal groups. The internet provided opportunities for connecting with clubs looking for new members. Local libraries offered venues and support, and bookshops advertised suitable titles.

In 2012 the BDS celebrated serving 1000 book clubs. By 2018, when its catalogue offered over 1000 fiction and non-fiction titles (with many new ones added annually), it served over 1300 clubs with more than 11,000 members. An estimated 90 per cent of them were women.

Given the lack of research, it is not possible to describe a ‘typical’ book club; but it is likely to be, by accident or design, a women-only group. Reading is New Zealand women’s most popular domestic recreation [2]. Feminist groups proliferating during the 1970s often generated reading groups; for example, an Auckland group focused on hitherto neglected women writers. Some of the members of a Marxist reading group were among the organisers of the historic Piha Women’s Liberation Congress in 1978. Women’s bookshops and the Women’s Book Festival, which ran for several years during the 1990s, fostered interest in contemporary women’s writing.

BDS Book Group WELL 124

This intentionally women-only group, which was not given a name by its members, started in Wellington in 2003. When it joined the BDS scheme in 2008, it was identified as WELL 124.

The initial six members all knew or had heard of each other from their involvement in women’s studies and feminism. Some were long-term Wellingtonians; others had arrived more recently, and wanted to join a book group with other women who were keen, wide-ranging readers. As all were then in paid work, they agreed to meet monthly in the evening, focusing on one book each session. The member whose turn it was to host the meeting chose the book and was responsible for starting the discussion and providing supper.

Experience of feminist collectives led to agreement on some basic protocols, still working well in 2019. Each member in turn gave her reaction to the book without interruption, then general discussion of it opened up. The supper that followed also had its protocols: as one person had withdrawn from a previous club to avoid having to provide the obligatory elaborate home-baked cake, members agreed to keep to cheese, crackers and a (usually bought) sweet item; however, catering for chocolate, cheese and gluten allergies did become a consideration. Over supper, members talked about what else they were reading. As most were also avid moviegoers, film recommendations came up too, especially during film festivals.     

By 2008, with eight members, it was proving difficult for all to obtain the next title in time through libraries or swapping (not everyone wanted to buy it). The solution was to join the BDS. Towards the end of each year, members individually selected five books from the BDS catalogue, then got together at a weekend meeting in December to agree on 25 books (of which the BDS would send 10 over the following year).

Choosing could be a lengthy process: if two members had already read a suggested title, it would not be included; this resulted in discovering overlooked or unknown titles. Diversity of interests and backgrounds exposed every member to titles and topics they would not have selected themselves, often to their great pleasure. Each reader’s reactions provided different angles. On only 10 occasions did everyone love the book, but only once did everyone hate it, and the disagreements proved stimulating and enlightening.

Over the years, the group established some annual traditions. Those members living on the Kāpiti Coast hosted two summer potluck lunches: in December, the next year’s books were selected, then in February, summer reading was discussed and the first BDS book was distributed.

Membership fluctuated, but in 2019 several of the original members were still involved. This book group was firmly about books; although it had friendship networks within it, it was not primarily a social or support group. Its continuity provided a thread which would continue to sustain its members, as they grew older, through their mutual love of reading and discussion.

Claire-Louise McCurdy and Hilary Lapsley


[1] Ian Dougherty, ‘Canterbury’s Box and Books Schemes’, New Zealand Memories, April/May 2016, pp. 32–34.

[2] Kerryn Pollock, ‘Domestic recreation and hobbies – Reading, Listening and Watching’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand,

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