This is something of a milestone. I am in the middle of working on the one-hundredth book for the NZ WEA Book Discussion Scheme (BDS). It might even be a record, but not one that generates much excitement except in my own beating heart. The book is “I am Malala” – by and about the amazing young woman who survived being shot by the Taliban and, on her sixteenth birthday, stood up and lectured the United Nations general assembly with poise and passion.
So, what is the Book Discussion Scheme? It is a New Zealand-wide, non-profit, adult education scheme in which, each month, groups of people are supplied with books, with accompanying notes, for the purpose of reading and discussion. Currently there are about a thousand groups with an average of ten members per group. That’s a lot of people reading and discussing, not just books but other subjects that arise from their reading. There are 800 plus titles in the BDS catalogue and that’s a lot of books circulating throughout the country.
Established in 1973, the BDS was born in a small garage at the back of the WEA building. Now it is run from mainstreet Christchurch with a small staff and several volunteers. They don’t need to advertise, it’s all word of mouth – and they have a waiting list of people looking to join, or start, groups. It’s enough to warm the heart – all those people getting together to read and think and talk and argue and broaden minds.
I am one of the BDS note-writers and get as much, if not more, than the readers do out of the process. I’ve been doing the job for nearly four decades and believe whole-heartedly in the cause – the encouragement of enhanced, guided reading by as many people as possible, as affordably as possible. Also I read a lot of books that I might not have chosen, and am rarely disappointed. That also applies to group members – choosing the books for the group is a democratic process which enriches everybody one way or another.
As a note-writer I must read and research especially carefully so that the notes are helpful and, with a bit of luck, illuminating. The notes are essentially informal essays, followed by questions designed to help discussion about the book, rather than to test the reader’s understanding of it. There is no right or wrong way to talk about a book, and each group does it – or not – any way they like. They can also comment freely about their experiences – including the quality or otherwise of the notes supplied. Believe me, that keeps us note-writers on our toes. I guess that’s democracy too.