The Draw of Dickens and "Brigadoon" Friendships

July 08, 2019

We asked eleven-time Universe attendee Svein Arber of Northampton, MA to tell us more about what draws him to Santa Cruz each summer. This Q&A is part of our new series highlighting members of the Dickens Project and Dickens Universe community.

svein-arber.pngWhat is your professional and personal background? 

I have been retired since 2011, at which time I moved from San Francisco, where I had lived for thirty-four years and had three different vocations, to Massachusetts. For eleven years I owned and operated The Bookplate, a restaurant-bookstore on Chestnut Street that failed in 1989 after suffering various setbacks. Then I worked as a cab driver for eight years while I attended graduate school at San Francisco State to earn a teaching credential and a master’s in English Literature. In 1995 I became an English lecturer at San Francisco State, and in 1998upon reducing my load at State to one night class a weekI began teaching English at Lowell High School, where I was appointed department head in 2007. 

Before moving to California in 1977, I worked in book publishing in New York for fourteen years. My last position was vice president of Praeger Publishers.

How long have you been attending the Dickens Universe?

I first attended in 1991 (The Pickwick Papers). Barnaby Rudge will mark my eleventh visit to the Universe. 

How did you discover Dickens Universe?

After noticing a blurb describing the program in the UC Berkeley extension catalog, I decided to enroll for credit. At the time, I was hoping to enter the teaching profession, so the Universe provided me with an opportunity to reboot my literary skills.    

What qualities of the Dickens Universe make you keep coming back?

Nothing beats hanging around with folks who share a common interest, and I believe literature people have a particularly strong natural bond. Even though I only see my fellow participants for one week a year, I’ve come to consider many of them good friends. I can’t call myself a superfan of Dickens (I wrote my master’s thesis on works by Vladimir Nabokov), but almost all of his novels are fun to read and discuss, and the best ones certainly qualify as great literature. 

What was your first impression of the Dickens Universe?

This was a terrific program offering a rich variety of lectures, classes, and activities, attended by lots of interesting people with whom I enjoyed spending time from my first moment on campus.

Explain your connection and interest in Charles Dickens.

When I was a kid my Norwegian father—whose three favorite British authors were Kipling, Stevenson, and Dickens—urged me to read David Copperfield, where, in the fourth paragraph, I encountered a curious word—“caul”—for the first and last time in my life. Understanding at once that literature had plenty to offer, I began reading fiction at an early age, majored in English as an undergraduate, and went on to become an English teacher. So my interest in Dickens is incorporated in my DNA. But I’ve only actually taught one Dickens novel, Great Expectations.

Do you have a favorite Dickens novel?

Our Mutual Friend, with Bleak House a close second. 

What are some other hobbies or activities you enjoy? 

Years ago, I co-authored a baseball novel, Seasons Past, which over time gained status as a minor-league “cult baseball novel.” In retirement, I've become a self-published writer of fiction, with one novel, Jumping to Conclusions, available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats. And I’m about a third of the way through my next novel, whose tentative title is Unswept Stone.

In 2017 and 2018, I taught Road Scholar classes at Pilgrim Pines Conference Center in New Hampshire. In 2017 I conducted a weeklong session on the Harlem Renaissance, and last year’s class was called “Bebop and Cool Jazz.”

I’m also a fan of classic movies—so much so that last year I skipped the Universe (I had already experienced Little Dorrit), allowing me to take part in the TCM Film Festival in L.A., which I thoroughly enjoyed. (Alas, my retirement income provides only so much latitude for my far-flung adventures, which also include regular visits to Norway, where I have family and old friends.)   

What are some of your favorite aspects of the Dickens Universe? 

  1. The mix of participants, which brings together all domains of academics—professors, graduate students, and high school teachers—along with undergraduates and a wide range of folks who happen to enjoy immersing themselves in marvelous tales told by one of the greatest storytellers of all time.
  2. The camaraderie with other regulars, with whom I have what I’d call “Brigadoon” friendships.
  3. UCSC’s campus and invigorating climate.
  4. The satisfaction I get from nourishing my love of literature.  

Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions!