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The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books [Hardcover]

John Carey
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
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Book Description

20 Mar 2014

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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Product details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber (20 Mar 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0571310923
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571310920
  • Product Dimensions: 13.5 x 21.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 10,298 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


[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

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
25 of 26 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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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Don for all Seasons 5 May 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Touching, well - written and unstuffy, this is a autobiography written by - at first - an unlikely Oxford Don. A grammar school boy from an ordinary background his career flourished through hard work, prodigous memory and an innate skilll in exploiting useful career openings at various colleges: a happy congruence of serendipity, diplomacy and intellect. Carey's attitude to colleagues and students alike was shaped by National Service before Oxford; this experience afforded him an informed sense or proportion in dealings with other residents of the " Ivory Tower " lifestyle that eluded many career academics of that time. A good read, often leavened by dry humour and unpompous regard for Oxbridge institutions.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Infectious enthusiasm for English literature 5 May 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Professor Carey is a superb guide to authors and works to which I've been 'exposed' in various degrees, but for many of which I felt no enthusiasm. He has corrected this, with a remarkably interwoven autobiography organized around his reading, thinking and writing. A second, equally compelling reason for my interest is that Carey was a student at Oxford only shortly after my father, and at the same college; so he names some people I know my father knew, which gives the book a further potent charge. The evocation of England in the fifties, sixties and seventies is fascinating to me; I'm not sure how much this will engage other readers, but regardless, I strongly recommend this book as a literate and engagingly partial transit through literature.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wish more literary critics wrote like this. 29 April 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
An excellent read and a very accessible introduction to some great authors for a non-literary person. Some minor errors outside the literary sphere. For example while I am sure the author is right about Roy Harrod's snobbishness it was John Maynard Keynes who was a member of the Bloomsbury set and whose bowdlerised biography Harrod wrote, not that of his father Geoffrey Keynes. He is right about the loss to social mobility through academic merit resulting from the loss of the grammar schools.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars an unexpected pleasure 12 May 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Like most of the best books I've read, its unexpectedness only adds value to a memoir of an educational system which I consider to be the last bastion of true egalitarianism of the post war era. Sadly, unlike the author, I did not make the right decisions, or indeed bring sufficient application to bear in my own studies - at least during my school years. None the less, this book reminds me how fortunate I was to have enjoyed a grammar school education, as well as illuminating me in many areas of English literature that I have neglected. Perhaps not for much longer...
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
By Obelix
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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Most Recent Customer Reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Two Stars
most of it was over my head !
Published 11 days ago by Frank Wall
5.0 out of 5 stars Review nay worship
His teaching at university was life enhancing, his reviews are always thought provoking - especially when one disagrees and this book offers the heart of the matter, his reason... Read more
Published 1 month ago by mrs maureen hazell
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Very happy. Thanks.
Published 1 month ago by Dolleen MacLennan
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
A good read
Published 1 month ago by Sam
5.0 out of 5 stars If you have ever wondered - 'why read...?'
"Reading is freedom," says John Carey. " It releases you from the limits of yourself." Well I was happily released during the reading of this "Oxford life in Books," and sorry for... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Sabina
5.0 out of 5 stars ... some reviews and the book was every bit as good as described
I'd read some reviews and the book was every bit as good as described. Professor Carey's views on the educational system were fascinating to me as they matched what I had always... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Ms J Hillary
4.0 out of 5 stars An interesting autobiography and a good insight into the way of life...
An interesting autobiography and a good insight into the way of life for an Oxford don. Some lively literary criticism is blended into the narrative. Read more
Published 2 months ago by David McMurray
5.0 out of 5 stars This is a brilliant book and I would highly recommend it especially as...
This is a brilliant book and I would highly recommend it especially as i have been to Oxford and stayed in Keeble College and knew many of the places Carey was depicting. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Mrs. Marie T. Mcdaniel
5.0 out of 5 stars An engrossing encyclopaedia of literature
Recommended for anyone who loves the art of writing, as well as for those who do not see its purpose. Read more
Published 3 months ago by David L
5.0 out of 5 stars wonderful autobiography
from one of the great exponents of English literature. his intellect, sensitivity and humanity radiate from this book. Read more
Published 3 months ago by vanilla
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