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The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books Hardcover – 20 Mar 2014

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber; Main edition (20 Mar. 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0571310923
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571310920
  • Product Dimensions: 14.3 x 3.1 x 22.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (60 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 114,275 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

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

4.5 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 30 people found the following review helpful By S Riaz HALL OF FAMETOP 50 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Susie B TOP 100 REVIEWER on 7 April 2015
Format: Paperback
During his long life, John Carey has been a professor of English Literature at Oxford University, a published author, a critic, a book-prize judge and is the lead book reviewer at 'The Sunday Times'. In his introduction to this memoir, John Carey tells us that the idea for writing it originated when a friend suggested he write a history of English literature, and although Carey thought it an attractive idea at the outset, he soon realised that something more personal was called for. Therefore, instead, he has written: "a history of English literature and me, how we met, how we got on and what became of it." Carey goes on to tell us that his book could be read as a short introduction to English literature, although "admittedly a selective and opinionated one" - and whilst that may be true, this book is also an interesting, amusing and very readable memoir of the author's life, of his time at Oxford University and, most importantly, of his passion for literature.

The son of an accountant, Carey was born in 1934 in Barnes, in London, and although the family moved to Radcliffe in Nottinghamshire during the war, they returned to London in 1947, where Carey attended Richmond and East Sheen Grammar School for Boys. At Richmond and East Sheen where, Carey tells us, he was taught by the kind of teachers who change you for life, he applied himself to his work and, helped by his love of literature, in particular poetry, he did well enough academically to win an open scholarship to St John's College, Oxford.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Roman Clodia TOP 100 REVIEWER on 18 Mar. 2014
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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