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It Was the Best of Times

Forget the lecture hall. A Dickens reading group fulfills one freshman's great expectations.

Eliza Gran

By Irene Noguchi

It's 9 p.m. on a Tuesday evening, and the cozy little apartment is aglow with life. A kettle whistles. Knocks sound on the door. Students toss around pillows and find comfortable spaces to sit.

"The tea's ready," a voice says, and out shuffles our professor in sweatpants, carrying a tray with a dilapidated copy of Bleak House wedged between the teacups. She settles down on the soft blue rug, adjusts her glasses and looks up at us from behind her low coffee table, the only podium from which she can be assured she has her students' complete attention.

"Chapter One," she begins. "Fog everywhere. . . ."

And suddenly we are there, wrapped up in the cold, white mist that blankets London, with the echo of loud voices, the clippety-clop of hooves, the splash of puddles and the faraway chime of a clock.

Welcome to the Charles Dickens reading group, where eight freshmen and sophomores grasp a mug of English tea in one hand and a novel firmly in the other. It's an entirely different side of Stanford from the lecture halls where I normally learn.

I was a freshman in Donner House when Linda Paulson, the assistant dean of the continuing studies program and my resident fellow at the time, casually suggested the weekly reading group during a house meeting. Then, she hoisted the book onto her lap: David Copperfield, 3 inches thick and in small print.

I didn't go to the first meeting.

No time for extra work, I told myself. Already, I was busy going from one packed auditorium to the next, furiously scribbling down notes in an attempt to keep up with the fast-paced lectures.

Later in the quarter, Linda discovered I was an English major and suggested I give the group a try. A self-proclaimed lover of literature, I had to save face.

I walked into her apartment at the beginning of winter quarter. Here was a "classroom" with paintings on the walls, classical records spilling onto the floor and the smell of roses drifting in from the garden. Students were laughing about a character in the book. Linda was struggling to lift a large orange cat napping on Chapter 15 of David Copperfield. "Make yourself comfortable," she said. And then it began.

Now, 17 months and four dozen cups of chamomile later, I'm ensconced in a world of satirical characters and British wit. And though our laughter is light, our analysis is heavy.

Instead of dissecting sentences from the book, we talk about how Dickens's orphan characters reflect his childhood poverty. From Linda's shelves, we pull down resources I never see on reading lists: copies of the notes Dickens kept as he wrote, film adaptations of his novels by British theater companies and even cupholders depicting Tiny Tim and Oliver Twist.

In this corner of a freshman dorm, students who are silent in regular classes slowly start voicing their opinions. We don't have to write 12-page papers on Dickens's use of metaphor. We read each novel in serialized form—three chapters at a time—just as the Victorian public did. If we have any questions, Linda holds "office hours" on the patio while she gardens.

Now that I've left Donner, some friends ask why I still tote around "that doorstop of a book" and keep going to an optional class. I tell them it's for the usual temptation: free food. Tea, banana bread, English chocolate, persimmon cake drizzled with icing and a rare cheesecake one student brought back from New York City. But it's the material we delve into afterward, I find, that provides the most sustenance.

In September, I'm going to Oxford to study literature. I'll be taking one-on-one tutorials, one of the best possible learning experiences, everyone says. But I wonder whether England, with its ancient libraries and centuries of scholarship, can match the warmth of that little room I found open on a Tuesday night.

Irene Noguchi, '02, is an English and economics major from Santa Ana, Calif.

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