Why reading groups are still going strong in the west, and Australia-wide
By Kassie Gadeke
There’s something about sharing a book that brings people together. In the libraries and lounge rooms of Western Australia, book clubs are meeting to discuss everything from literary treasures to current day conversation-starters.
It’s difficult to find specific figures on book club numbers because they are private gatherings, with information traveling by word of mouth between friends. But one thing that can’t be disputed is that in WA, book clubs are continuing to nurture not just a love of reading, but a connection between friends.
Some groups date back decades. The Post-Modern Book Club in Perth celebrated its 50th anniversary in October 2013 –most of the 12 members have been involved for 30 years.
The Amalgamated Book Clubs of Albany and the Great Southern, ‘Amalgamated’, is believed to have between 600 and 700 members throughout the region. Sub-groups of eight to 12 meet and select a set of books from a collection of around 470 titles cultivated by founder, the late Dorothy Morgan. A six-person committee now selects the books, with 25 sets of 10 added per year.
Local bookstores and libraries hold club sessions to engage their borrowers, and publisher Fremantle Press hosted a ‘Great Big Book Club’ event last year that was a sellout, with 300 attendees booked within weeks.
Perth is an isolated city, and it seems staying connected and learning about the world are the key drivers for book clubs.
For inaugural members of the Post-Modern Book Club Lesley Parker and Jennifer Bardsley (pictured left), reading was – and still is – their way of learning about the world. For Lesley, ‘it’s a part of feeding our souls’.
‘Our Book Club has been a source, not just of intellectual support, but also emotional support. It has seen us through times of happiness and sadness,’ she said.
‘We made strict rules for our monthly evening meetings: no talk about husbands or children, no children to be brought along, books to cost no more than 10 shillings, not more than two dishes for supper.’
These sharp, articulate, impeccably dressed older women are far from a stereotype of bookworms hiding away, reflecting on their documented reading list that tackled tough political topics and reflected on life through the ages.
‘If you think back to 1963, it was before there was any sort of feminist movement – by and large, women were put off when they were married,’ Jennifer said.
‘We then discovered feminism through books. We read them all as they came out and developed our views from that and saw what was possible for women to achieve.’
Amalgamated formed back in the 1970s and is now in a state of change. One member, Rebecca Weadon, has her own group ‘Albany Readers Inc’ and is looking to run a parallel club integrating digital systems. Rebecca suggested isolation was the reason book clubs boomed down south.
‘Yes, we read books and talk about books, but it’s a social community, it’s a connection, and generally you’re talking about the book for a short amount of time and the rest of it is catching up with a couple of friends,’ she said. ‘That’s the strength of how it keeps going here, that’s how we connect.’
Nelson finds it enlightening to understand her readers and their perspectives on the work.
‘I was a bit apprehensive at first,’ Alice said about meeting with book clubs.
‘To be in an intensive session where between eight and 15 people are actually analysing your book for two hours – I thought it would be confronting but I found I loved it. It was such a huge privilege to get to meet my readers in that sort of format . . .
‘Book clubs provide a really unique interface between writers and readers, which is really lovely for both parties.’
Alice connected with clubs through Claremont’s Lane Bookstore and spoke to a number of groups – one in particular shone new light on the male character in The Last Sky.
‘This book club was all men and I found it fascinating because they had completely different takes on the book and they were very much interested in the male character, the husband. For me, my interest was the central female character – but suddenly I was forced to really think about, examine and talk about the male figure, which was incredibly useful for me. That perspective was interesting and it was also really lovely to see men reading fiction and engaging with it.’
Perhaps City of Joondalup Library Service Coordinator Lynley Stapleton – who helped develop six library book clubs and belongs to one herself – puts it best: ‘Book club isn’t about how much you read – it is the social connection, expansion of the mind, being respectful and above all trying something that you would never normally consider.’