Some of our groups have been running for years, even decades. A few have lasted more than a half-century, passing the baton to younger generations. Through all the ups and downs of members’ lives, each group has its own life. They continue to meet on a regular basis. They meet in one another’s homes, in community facilities, and even in commercial settings. This recent ABC article asks why we keep showing up to book clubs even when we haven’t read the book.

Neither seasonal changes nor or the slings and arrows of age and illness, or the onset of parenthood or grandparenthood discourage these groups. Even COVID didn’t stop groups from meeting, whether this meant taking the group online for a while or else continuing to meet in risk-managed circumstances such as one another’s back yards or public parks.

So, what is it about CAE book groups that keeps them going? And what makes each group a community in its own right?

We all have our tribe, or else we are looking for one. In some cases, this tribe is the book club (the term ‘book club’ did not enter common usage until well after the establishment of Book Discussion Groups in 1922 in Victoria, the program that CAE took over in 1947). Such groups may comprise a gathering of like-minded people, or people who often disagree but enjoy the satisfaction of debate with other readers. We don’t all like the same books and we can agree to disagree. Some groups’ most fulfilling exchanges may arise from respectful argument over differing interpretations.

Other book group members may already belong to one or more community. The group can form a subset of a larger community, or it may form an oasis in a desert of other people’s disinterest in books. The group may be a refuge or a sanctuary, or just a welcome excuse for friends to keep in touch, with the excuse of regular book discussion. Sometimes, the book is almost secondary to the gathering. All these are valid reasons to continue meeting.

It is not uncommon for our older book group members to come from a background of busy lives. For those in retirement who want to stay mentally engaged, the structure of a group can be a perfect opportunity to read and discuss ideas. Retired teachers, for example, may not miss the classroom but they may well miss the stimulation of interacting with peers. Likewise, retired businesspeople may not miss the rat race and the deadlines, but they may miss purpose, structure and stimulating conversations.

For book group members of working age, the group can fulfill a different kind of need, offering them a chance to maintain their connection with contemporary literature, as well as the inspiration and motivation of meeting other people outside work or study. These days, especially online, we can find ourselves in an opinion echo-chamber where everyone seems to agree. This semi-isolation is often aided and abetted by social media algorithms that propel us towards or away from certain subjects. The opportunity to meet real people in a human setting, with all its uncertainty and unpredictability, holds far more excitement. How many times have you, as a reader, been surprised to find that your reaction to a book is quite unlike others? Do you find yourself asking: ‘Have I missed something?’ Or do you wonder if others have missed the point? How can there be so many different interpretations of a chapter, an incident, or an entire story?

Like other groups – families, workplaces, and neighbourhoods – our book groups evolve. Just because a group has lasted for more than five decades does not mean that today’s version is the same group. Rather, each group is a living breathing community, and we should celebrate this remarkable institution.

Here are 3 illustrations of this Evolution, from our many groups

East Malvern 16

‘Belonging to our book group has been an absolute joy. It was over 40 years ago that I was invited to join a group of women in forming a book group. Most of them were known to me and most were 20 years my senior. They were people for whom I had considerable respect. Some had an abundant knowledge of theatre and the arts and were much travelled, so that in discussion there were generally personal experiences recounted. My offering was often from my generation, and I remember addressing the group as ‘look, guys’ to their considerable surprise. Our group now has new members, and as I am the only foundation member left, I have been to many celebrations of life. As new women have been approached to join, we are always keen to have different backgrounds and experiences. I believe this has been an ongoing strength, especially in religion, with Protestant, Catholic and Jewish members in our group. There is a different leader for each meeting to act as a facilitator. Notes provided by CAE are an added bonus. We have a wonderful camaraderie as well as thoughtful and serious conversations. The discussion opens your mind to other possibilities and even if you have not been particularly keen on a book, to hear from those who enjoyed it can be enlightening. I’m sure that through belonging to a book group, you become a more open and interesting person.’

Alison Rechner, East Malvern 16


Glen Waverley 6

‘Our book group was formed in 1967 by a group of young mothers. Some were neighbours and some were wives of men who belonged to the Waverley Cricket Club. Over the years as ladies left the group, others – friends, golf and tennis friends – joined, always maintaining about 11 members. One of the original members is still a member of our book group. The meetings were held at one of our members’ homes. If it was your home, someone else would lead the discussion. Discussing the book was always a major part of our meeting, followed by a sumptuous supper. This was fine when left-over food could be consumed by hungry family members. Nowadays, with family having moved out, we have a rule that we need only one plate of nibbles followed by one cake with a cup of tea. Another change has been the move from evening to afternoon, as our members are much older, and we don’t want to drive at night. At the end of the year, we all donate to a local charity. Also, we bring along a gift-wrapped book from our own collection as a gift to be exchanged amongst ourselves. One of the enjoyable things we have found is that you read books you might not normally choose. Often, after arriving at our meeting and not having enjoyed reading a particular book – after our discussion – and listening to others’ ideas – often you can gain another perspective. A wonderful aspect of being involved in a club that has been running for so many years is that the members become true friends and importantly share the good times of happy events and are there to support one another on the sadder occasions. Socialising is very important as one ages. Becoming involved in a book club assists this and it also hopefully keeps our brains active too. Back in 2017, we had our 50th anniversary at a local restaurant, and it was lovely to have some previous members join us.

Helen Felder, Glen Waverley 6


‘Our group began in 1977, when Margaret, who is still a member, invited neighbours to come together to discuss books. Our first choice was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Next month the group read Pablo Casals’ Joys and Sorrows and then Henry Handel Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom. Over the years many have joined the group, though sadly some have passed away. A strong bond of friendship has developed, sustained by our love of books. We currently have 8 members, with another former member whose eyesight is poor, joining us on occasion, especially if she can get the book on her Kindle. In 2003, after reading Arnold Zable’s Café Scheherazade, members travelled to St Kilda for afternoon tea at Café Scheherazade. Then in 2020, after reading Najaf Mazari and co-writer Robert Hillman’s book The Rug Maker of Masar-E-Shariff, members and their husbands drove to Dandenong and visited Najar Mazari’s carpet factory. We experienced the rich culture available in Dandenong, with buses taking us to various locations. Our advice to other book groups looking to enhance their uniqueness and longevity is to find new members who continue the ethos of the group. We are geographically and socially aligned, and good cake makers. The group is a wonderful way to broaden our reading experience while keeping socially connected.

Lyn Bolton, Heathmont 11


Boorhamen 1

‘Our group began in 1969 and we still have one of our original members. Over the years we’ve had between 12 and 15 members on average, with ages spanning from 30s to 80s. Our meeting format is quite strict. A no-fuss affair for the host: wine or juice and conversation on arrival, book discussion, and then biscuits with tea and coffee and more conversation. Of course, there is always someone who breaks the rules, such as garden parties and champagne on arrival. We are happy to try foods prepared by our host when it relates to the book we are discussing, e.g. Sudanese sweet potato curry, or smoked eel. Significant birthdays have seen decadent bickies! One biscuit is referred to as a ‘book club biscuit’. No meeting is complete without a venetian. During Covid we adapted; meeting in a park or back yards, or a local café once restrictions were lifted. The leader for each discussion generally does background research and either follows questions from the CAE notes or brings an entirely different slant to the book. One discussion started with an olfactory flight and evolved into an entertaining discussion on the book Perfume. Professions, travel, family and business all ensure that there is someone with an interesting anecdote. Many of our all-female group have travelled expensively and we enjoy stories and reminisces of countries visited and memories evoked by books we read. Some of us enjoy the current book and some don’t. This always adds entertainment to our discussions. We are comfortable enough as a varied group of friends to allow for individual opinion.’

‘Our remaining original member, Pam, says: “The group began as young mothers from the farming community. Many a time we would get lost trying to find the host farm in the middle of winter. We all had young children, so the group was a special outing. One member had 12 children! The Boorhaman people gradually moved on and we became a Rutherglen community. Every second year we were entitled to have a guest speaker provided by CAE, who was hosted overnight. Guests included well known personalities or authors. The most memorable was a young gay pianist, who in those days rarely spoke publicly. This caused a furore in Rutherglen, and we even lost a member over it. We have read many books through CAE (e.g. 55 years X 11 books annually = 605 books, at least). So many memories, so many friends we might never have met, so many reading challenges, so many ideas, and so many Vienna biscuits.’

Lisa Murtagh, Boorhamen 1


How about you and your group? Have you found your tribe? Do you have a cosy or a lively group with vigorous debates? Do you sometimes or often disagree? What have been some of your more controversial books or discussions?