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The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books [Kindle Edition]

John Carey
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Best known for his provocative take on cultural issues in The Intellectuals and the Masses and What Good Are the Arts?, John Carey describes in this warm and funny memoir the events that formed him - an escape from the London blitz to an idyllic rural village, army service in Egypt, an open scholarship to Oxford and an academic career that saw him elected, age 40, to Oxford's oldest English Literature professorship.

He frankly portrays the snobberies and rituals of 1950s Oxford, but also his inspiring meetings with writers and poets - Auden, Graves, Larkin, Heaney - and his forty-year stint as a lead book-reviewer for the Sunday Times.

This is a book about the joys of reading - in effect, an informal introduction to the great works of English literature. But it is also about war and family, and how an unexpected background can give you the insight and the courage to say the unexpected thing.

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[It] conveys with incomparable precision the sense of a young mind being opened by, and dwelling within, literature. (Robert Harris Sunday Times)

An absolutely fascinating record of a literary life - half an insider's view of the growth of Oxford English over the past half century, half a meditation on the by-ways of modern Grub Street by one of its most distinguished ornaments, and at all times a penetrating account of how a superlatively combative critic found and developed the most vital weapon in his armoury - a sensibility. (DJ Taylor)

It's a pleasure to find him largely forgiving and maturely amused at the comedie humaine, especially as his prose remains as lean and buoyant as ever ... (Carey's) clarity of mind and expression enlivens where others deaden, and his judgments are powerful. If there were more academics with his energy and lucidity around, then literary criticism would be a happier discipline. (Rupert Christiansen Daily Telegraph)

It is much more than a memoir. The Unexpected Professor is a celebration of a lifetime's devotion to literature and a manifesto of sorts ... It is also a perfect example of his own creed, that reading is both liberation and a limitless source of pleasure. (Sophie Elmhirst Financial Times)

Carey is simply a reading obsessive and one with extraordinary, enlightening views. His account of life as a middle-class, grammar school boy is engaging and his National Service days are cleverly rendered. His upbringing in a quiet, enclosed home with a troubled brother is both moving and infuriatingly incomplete. But it is when he talks of poets, rhythms and the sheer, wonderful, all-consuming joy of reading that this book offers evidence of Carey in excelsis. (The Herald)

In his blog, which is largely dedicated to the keeping of bees, John Carey, for 30 years a professor of English literature at Oxford, states that he writes to "stimulate and involve the general reader". This autobiography, written with sympathy, a light touch and a sardonic sense of humour, amply fulfils that aim. (The Economist)

Book Description

In The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books, John Carey - English professor at Oxford, controversial commentator, book critic and beekeeper - reflects on a life immersed in literature, from grammar school beginnings to the Oxford establishment.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Unexpected Professor 20 Mar. 2014
Format:Kindle Edition
John Carey is a respected academic, chief book reviewer for the Sunday Times for forty years, a critic, a commentator and an author. His works have included biographies and his controversial books, “The Intellectuals and the Masses” and “What Good are the Arts?” This, however, is something different – a warm, funny and enjoyable autobiography- taking our narrator from his early childhood in Barnes in the 1930’s to the present. It is the memoir not only of a life, but also of Carey’s relationship with books and, for a reader, it is a delight to have this incredibly learned man make his love (and incredible knowledge) of literature come alive.

The book begins with Carey’s early life in London, interrupted by the war and the blitz. As a young boy, after a night of bombing, Carey apparently asked his father whether they were “dead yet”? The innocent question prompted his parents to relocate to the countryside for the duration of the war. In Radcliffe-on-Trent, the author started school and began a love of reading; consuming comics and Biggles, among other treasures. Returning to London, the author started grammar school – a system he obviously believes in passionately (and with which I agree wholeheartedly). For this book is, among other things, wonderfully opinionated. Carey is an unapologetic socialist and a man who did his utmost at Oxford to help break down barriers of privilege and wealth and help admit students who did not come from public school. Himself a grammar schoolboy, Carey won an Oxford scholarship; beginning his many years at the prestigious university after an interlude of national service (partly in Egypt).

During his time at Oxford, the author muses on his studies and recalls attending lectures by J.R.R. Tolkien, among others.
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20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
I remember a conversation with a friend, about fifteen years ago. We'd just seen the Lindsay Anderson film If.... and were talking about the bits we'd liked best. I said that I'd liked the weird bits the most. He said, 'Yeah - the bits in black and white, all the surreal stuff?' I looked a little puzzled, and gave my answer. It was a list of all the day-to-day things that happen in a public school, which its inhabitants clearly seemed to think were ordinary. Ever since I've had an enduring curiosity about what actually goes on in The Great Universities (TM) - if only in the same way an anthropologist does about a tribe of humans previously thought lost to civilisation.

The book is a memoir of Oxford but also of reading, and the importance books have played in Carey's life. It is also, as he states from the outset, a tribute to the grammar school system, long since destroyed by the kind of socialist that enjoys leaving smoking holes in his own feet. That preface is also a warning to the reader. I've quoted these words from one of Carey's earlier books before, but they're just as truthful now:

'The reader has a right to know what sort of person will be laying down the law in the rest of the book - what his quirks and prejudices are, and what sort of background has formed him [...] This would save the reader a lot of time, since he would know from the start how much of the book's contents he could automatically discount.'

Carey makes it clear what sort of background formed him. He was an accountant's son (incidentally, something he and I have in common), an occupation the Bloomsbury set loved to despise as 'clerks', as if further consideration were somehow unnecessary. As with Larkin, post-war austerity and deprivation seem to have entered his soul.
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
By Roman Clodia TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Kindle Edition
John Carey's memoir is part autobiography, part record of a life as an Oxford don, and part discussion of the books and poetry which have moved and affected him. Born in the 1930s, Carey is part of a generation of scholars who certainly didn't have easy lives (`in those days, before central heating, everyone was cold most of the time'), but who were liberated from the increased professionalisation of academia, and thus were able to slip into jobs and write books for which they were barely qualified. Anyone struggling today to get any kind of post-doctoral position in a literature department, let alone in Renaissance poetry, can, therefore, only read this with envy.

Carey is an amusing and self-deprecating writer, and is aware of how different his academic life was from that of today's students: his anecdote of a meeting with his doctoral supervisor, Helen Gardner, where he read out bits of his research while she sat in front of the fire knitting is very telling. And the fact that he was commissioned to write an essay on DH Lawrence even though, as he admits himself, he `knew almost nothing about him', locates this in a very different world from that of most academics today.

So this is great on scholarly gossip, and is an affectionate portrait of that lost world of eccentric academia when professors were more like dilettante gentlemen amateurs (and they were mostly male) than professional researchers and teachers.

Carey admits that his literary tastes are subjective and I tend to disagree with his judgements: Philip Sidney, for example, is dismissed as being `feeble-witted', and Thomas Nashe as someone in whom `ideas are in short supply'. Wuthering Heights, too, is `unexpectedly tiresome'.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
surprisingly entertaining
Published 4 days ago by bernd manchester
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Great book.
Published 6 days ago by julia brockway
4.0 out of 5 stars Alpha minus
A gift for conveying enthusiasm combined with a writing style that is very clear.
Sadly the Grammar School experience, beautifully recalled, has become extinct. Read more
Published 12 days ago by gabriel mendoza
5.0 out of 5 stars A delightful insight into the quirky, rarified world of an academic
Having read 'The Violent Effigy' and 'The Intellectuals and the Masses' with great pleasure many years ago, I turned to this memoir with interest and was not disappointed. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Goth lady
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting in many ways and learned, but the more ...
Interesting in many ways and learned, but the more self-effacing he tries to be, the more he trips over his enormous ego, which marrs the book increasing.
Published 1 month ago by Annieoldiron
3.0 out of 5 stars lots of enticing ideas for reading
Reminded me of so many books I really fancied reading again and caught the thrill of discovering literature. Oh boy oh boy.
Published 1 month ago by C. Hadshar
4.0 out of 5 stars good on the life, but wish there wasn't so much lit crit in it
To me at least, I think that the author got wrong exactly what the focus of this book should be, starting off in autobiography and then going off into literary criticism - perhaps... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Mr. Robert Marsland
5.0 out of 5 stars Thoroughly enjoyable reading as well as learning so much more ...
Thoroughly enjoyable reading as well as learning so much more about literature, with the result that one finds oneself making notes of books for future reading
Published 1 month ago by Gilla
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Very enjoyable
Published 2 months ago by M O Dowling
4.0 out of 5 stars a must buy
A great book! It's the first time I have learned of people like Thackery and Perkin, and now need to look for books about them. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Clarice
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