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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Unexpected Professor
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...
Published 7 months ago by S Riaz

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21 of 30 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A life in books
John Carey, respected academic, writer and reviewer, here looks back over a life in books, the importance they have had for him as man and professor, and how they have shaped his career and destiny. The first part of the book is pretty much straight autobiography, but once he gets to Oxford, where he spent his whole working life, the more the book becomes a series of...
Published 6 months ago by Amanda Jenkinson


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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Unexpected Professor, 20 Mar 2014
By 
S Riaz "S Riaz" (England) - See all my reviews
(TOP 10 REVIEWER)    (VINE VOICE)    (HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)   
This review is from: The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books (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. Tolkien’s lectures were apparently mostly inaudible and, if audible, incomprehensible. Green mildew grew on his gown, as though he has stepped out of a wood... As well as commenting that he often did not enjoy his reading as an undergraduate; reading to learn, rather than for pleasure, he also makes the interesting observation that people who spend much of their time reading may find that they actually prefer reading about things rather than actually experiencing them. He gives an example of Wordsworth, finding a visit to Mont Blanc a disappointment when he finally saw it and suggests that reading can deaden the world as well as enliven it.

However, there is much for readers to enjoy in this book. Carey enthuses about his love of poets and authors. There is the visit by Robert Graves, among others, and digressions into what almost become short essays on authors such as D H Lawrence and George Orwell. He discusses book reviewing, writing, book prizes and everything in between. I found this an extremely enjoyable read, written by an utterly charming and intelligent author. Of course, he is aware that almost none of his readers will have his knowledge, but he is so enthusiastic that you feel ready to try some of the writers he has mentioned. As John Carey himself says, we should all Read On.

I received a copy of this book, from the publishers, for review.
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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
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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
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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
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This review is from: The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books (Kindle Edition)
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
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This review is from: The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books (Kindle Edition)
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
5.0 out of 5 stars 'A history of English literature and me, how we met, how we got on, what came of it', 22 Mar 2014
By 
Obelix (Ancient Gaul) - See all my reviews
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. Seemingly innocent objects - a mangle, a cucumber frame - stand for rare glimpses of luxury. He reads the magazines of the time -Chums, Biggles and, though not mentioned in this book, The Wide World - but never forgets the writers he discovered at Grammar school, the vivid clarity of their images.

After arriving at Oxford on a scholarship, he recalls the peculiar rituals. One involves being thought a rather spiffing sort for smashing more panes of glass than your Daddy did when he was there; another involves being carried out in a coffin in a mock funeral procession after getting expelled. The calculated rudeness, too, and what it tells you about an entire world of thought:

'One night I was sitting opposite him at dinner when he had a guest, for whose benefit he was identifying the various notables seated round the table. I heard his guest ask who I was, and [Sir Roy] Harrod replied, quite audibly, "Oh, that's nobody".'

Call this score-settling, if you like. I call it reportage, and I'd like to point out that no attempt at improving things that ignores or excuses away exchanges like this is likely to go far. The same might be said for Carey's warnings about watching more green fields vanish under concrete and sewage pipes.

From here, additional work finds his way. He tutors with 'military' robustness, determined to update and improve the syllabus. Additional work - editing Milton, moonlighting in Grub Street, judging prizes - seem to arrive almost out of the blue. A cottage is bought and renovated in the Cotsworlds; bees are lovingly kept. He writes books of his own, edits anthologies. He also meets living writers that he admires - Larkin, Graves, Heaney. Thankfully, these pieces are kept fresh, and free of hero-worship, especially the parts on Graves' rather dotty assertions.

I enjoyed the book for its outsider's take on Oxford and for Carey's punchy, vivid style. Not all of the material is fresh - some comes almost verbatim from earlier essays - but if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Throwing crusts of bread from the Hammersmith Bridge results in a 'swooping, screaming tornado of beaks and feathers'. During an exam, the sheets of paper 'flared up at you like arc lamps'; a house damaged by bombing 'lost its entire wall on the street side, exposing all its rooms with their furniture still in place, like a doll's house with the front lifted off'. Bees land in the darkness of their hive, the orange pollen on their back legs 'shining like brake lights.'

He can surprise you, too. Although Carey owns up that book awards are well-meaning lotteries, not infallible exercises in recognising merit, he is honest enough to share his feelings on being awarded the James Tait Black Prize for Biography, and this touching bit of self-depreciation: 'Academic matters apart, I had not won anything since the Richmond and East Sheen Grammar School for Boys cross-country run some fifty-eight years before.' Curiously, his favourites among the thousand or so books he has reviewed for the Sunday Times are largely non-fiction. Among those are John Osborne's virulently angry autobiographies, rather than Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, or Clive James' Unreliable Memoirs.

Now the flaws. They're few, in truth. Attractive as Carey's anti-luxury stance can be, I like to think I'm not the only one who finds it a bit much when he savages aftershave as 'foppish', as if not stinking is an affront to basic human decency. When mentioning the work of the 1994 Nobel Laureate in Literature, Carey gets his name wrong. When Carey complains about the reviews for The Intellectuals and the Masses, I recall more sympathetic reviews than he seems to (such as Ian Hamilton's). While I've described Joyce's Ulysses as a handful of diamonds sprinkled over a slag heap, I haven't forgotten that Orwell couldn't read it without feeling 'an inferiority complex', nor that he aped its multiple-style approach in his second novel.

These minor gripes aside, if reading punctures 'pomp' and and 'makes you see that ordinary things are not ordinary', Carey has excelled at both here. I sincerely hope this will not be his last book.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic, 4 May 2014
By 
K. Singh (Hertfordshire) - See all my reviews
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A very clear and well written book which mixes autobiography and literature which has influenced him over the years. Interesting reading of academic life in Oxford, his personal family life and his work as the Sunday Times reviewer for over 40 years.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The unexpected professor, 26 April 2014
By 
A. W. Revell - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books (Kindle Edition)
Don't trust the critics. A recent review in the Sunday Times, completely misses the point.This a book is a delight
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A good read for readers, 11 April 2014
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This review is from: The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books (Kindle Edition)
I enjoyed both dimensions of this book: the autobiography itself of a man with an egalitarian spirit and the ongoing references to works of literature from which he quotes to exemplify his view of them. I feel as if I will want to go back to it simply to list all the books for which he has given me a taste.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An affectionate homage to reading and a lost world of eccentric academia, 18 Mar 2014
By 
Roman Clodia (London) - See all my reviews
(TOP 100 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books (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'.

But I'm more than happy to agree to disagree: however far apart our tastes and critical judgements might be, Carey ends his book on a note which will strike a chord with readers everywhere: `book-burners try to destroy ideas that differ from their own. Reading does the opposite. It encourages doubt... reading releases you from the limits of yourself'.

(This review is from an ARC courtesy of the publisher)
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