29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
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.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
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. However, before Carey could head off to university, he had to carry out two years of National Service and finding himself posted to Egypt, he did his best to "pretend to be a good soldier" and, in this part of his memoir, he shares with the reader some amusing stories of his time the army. Back in England Carey took up his place at Oxford and, as an ex-grammar school boy amongst a predominance of ex-public school boys, he felt like an intruder and was "prepared to be detained or even ejected if spotted." Class-conscious and quite rightly proud of his grammar school education, Carey nevertheless soon settled in, and once settled at Oxford, he never left, moving from one position and college to another and, at the age of forty, was appointed to the prestigious post of Merton Professor of English Literature.
Obviously the author's love of literature forms the backbone of this book, and we read of how his tastes graduated from 'Biggles' and 'Swallows and Amazons' to Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, and Pope, and for leisure-time reading: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Stendhal and Zola; we also read of his admiration for the writing of D.H. Lawrence and of his particular regard (I was pleased to see) of George Orwell and his work; in addition we read of Carey's long period reviewing for 'The Sunday Times', and we learn of the famous living writers and poets he came into contact with (Robert Graves, W.H. Auden, Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes, amongst others). Carey also shares with the reader his thoughts on people who spend a lot of their lives reading books and comments that, after a time, they prefer reading about things to actually seeing them. He explains that because reading surrounds readers with imaginative allure, when the things they have read about are seen, they seem bald and ordinary - which is maybe why so many of us are sometimes disappointed with the film versions of books we have read and enjoyed. There is, of course, a lot more to this memoir than I have written about here, including mention of the author's personal life, but I shall leave the remainder for potential readers to discover for themselves - however, I will say that John Carey's passion and enthusiasm for literature is evident on practically every page, and although, naturally, I may not necessarily agree with all of his opinions, I found this an informative, amusing and very enjoyable read.
21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on 22 March 2014
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.
17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
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)
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 5 May 2014
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.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
John Carey is a respected writer and literary critic and some of the books he has edited (for example, on reportage and science) are a joy to read, but this one I found disappointing. It's a mixture of autobiography, literary criticism and a description of life as an Oxford academic in an earlier time before the harsh winds of reality swept through that university. For me, this mix doesn't work. The description of his early family life at the beginning of the book, with lists of uninteresting relatives who played little part in forming Carey's character, is dull. The bulk of the book is a series of commentaries on the writers, particularly poets that he has studied and admires. These are often far too detailed, technical and rather tedious; they out of place for a relatively short book such as this. They also add little to understanding Carey himself. The most revealing sections are the descriptions of his academic life at Oxford. They are not very flattering. All too often he boasts about his achievements: in being the driver for modernising the English Faculty, in getting excellent reviews for his books and articles, and some minor discovery in the arcane world of English scholarship. Although he likes to portray himself as left-wing and on the side of the common man, he also likes to drop the names of the great and the good, and let the reader know they are in his circle of friend. I suspect he always felt a bit of an outsider at Oxford and still harbours resentment to those who held their positions almost `by right'. Carey's life has the material for a good biography, but it needs to be presented more objectively, not as an autobiography.
on 16 August 2015
Carey, John. The Unexpected Professor
I first encountered John Carey through his book about Charles Dickens, The Violent Effigy, which I had read several years ago, so was soon browsing through this paperback in Pershore High Street last week. As I flipped through the book, the familiar names of TS Eliot, Charles Dickens, Helen Gardner and Christopher Ricks alerted me to the English literature I knew and loved. Here was an authority, a man respected for his criticism who had actually met and even shaken the hand of people who were to me ‘legends.’ I couldn’t put the book down and - there was no choice - I had to buy it. I found that Carey was born in Barnes, not so far from Putney where I used to live and that he had read and commented upon almost every writer I had ever read. Moreover he was an Oxford man, winner of scholarships, chairs and many awards including being a
Booker Prize judge. I too in my humble capacity had to some extent followed unknowingly in his path, attending a post-war grammar school and having my education interrupted by National Service and eventually taking up employment in teaching at an American University.
I was delighted to find that this learned man was so approachable, so easy to read, and that he was very far from being a stuffy intellectual, a quibbler or one lost in the clouds of academic pretense. Carey calls a spade a spade, has forthright and often controversial opinions, is neither Leavisite nor Marxist and obviously enjoys literature for its own sake. I felt that he understood not only the works in themself but the men behind them. Thus on Swift he says, ‘the fury he felt about how humans behave went far beyond local political issues.’ The Yahoos’ behaviour, so distasteful and ‘disgraceful’ as it seems to us underpins the human predicament, of being at base an animal, but one with ludicrous aspirations for immortality.
Carey is a socialist but not a starry-eyed visionary who believes that public education is not something that should be donated by right to anyone who feels like giving it a go. One has to earn the right to attend the higher universities, or rather, one should be allowed to compete for places based on one’s ability, not on one’s class background, and cetainly not on one’s ability to pay. Unsurprisingly one of his three top twentieth century novelists is George Orwell, the one whom he quotes as saying ‘the truth is that in a prosperous country left-wing politics are largely make-believe.’
It is appropriate that one of Carey’s most popular books is entitled Pure Pleasure, and his justification for reading and writing literature is simply that it ‘functions by making us imagine what it would be like to be someone else.’ Carey, who has read so widely and commented so wisely, deserves a knighthood for services to literature, although I’m pretty sure that, like Tony Benn, he’d never even consider accepting it.
on 30 March 2015
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. There's something rather touching and admirable about Professor Carey's conscientious approach to reading; for example, he ploughs through the entire works of Thackeray, even after he's discovered that 'Vanity Fair' as well as being a masterpiece, is the only good novel Thackeray ever wrote. I envy his dedication to duty, speaking as one who did manage to finish Pendennis, but gave up half way through The Newcomes. He's also very well mannered, apologizing in advance for his response to Emily Bronte's 'Wuthering Heights'; apparently, it gave him rather a turn when he realised some women might be more drawn to the sexually charged bad boy Heathcliff than to Edgar Linton and he found himself preferring Charlotte Bronte's outlook (apparently missing the fact that Jane Eyre quickly ditches frigid St John Rivers in favour of Rochester.)
There are other delightful details; on being offered a job as a TV critic, Professor Carey is forced to go to Radio Rentals to hire a set and then, when the job comes to an end, he takes the set back. (He's obviously missed 30 years of Eastenders, which is no bad thing, but it's a reflection of the rarified world of the academic to whom great swathes of popular culture, in terms of novels, film and TV are, so to speak, a closed book.) One other observation; I do rather wish Professor Carey hadn't been quite so polite. He could have a dished a little more witty 'dirt' on the Booker Prize shenanigans and the contortions of academia. I would dearly like to know, for example, the name of the outrageous college lecturer who refused to
lecture on the syllabus on the grounds that students mustn't be 'spoon-fed'. This detail left me gasping and glad that I was never clever enough to get to Oxbridge but read English at the wonderful University College London instead. But thank you, Professor Carey, for an entertaining read!
on 6 February 2015
Having read and greatly enjoyed several of John Carey's books I expected to enjoy this one, and I wasn't disappointed. The main highlights of this book are the comments he makes on the "great classics" from Chaucer to Conrad. I'm now much clearer on which "great authors" I might get most benefit from reading, and how to get the most benefit from those I have found difficult. He also indicates which might be best avoided! In this vein, I greatly appreciated his criticism of obscure modernists. For instance, he is highly critical of the later work of Eliot and Joyce. There is also cogent criticism of over-rated ancients, like Spencer and several other other Elizabethan poets. But he considers Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, and many other classic authors, in a manner that should have you scurrying to dig out their works. Modern novelists are noticeable by their absence. The most recent novelists receiving significant praise are Orwell, Lawrence and Conrad. Modern poets fare a bit better. For instance, he heaps praise on Larkin, Heaney, and Hughes. In summary, this is a book not be missed by any lover of great literature. Other books of his I have read, and would recommend, are "Pure Pleasure", "The Intellectuals and the Masses", and "What good are the arts?".
on 28 June 2015
Some years ago I bought Carey's 'Pure Pleasure'. I then read all fifty books recommended in it, bar two. One was Seven Types of Ambiguity - I couldn't imagine what that was doing there - and the other was by S J Perelman, which I couldn't obtain. It was a worthwhile experience and I've always enjoyed his reviews and all-too-few appearances on TV.
So I was always going to read his autobiography.
The early chapters I thought poor and almost unworthy of inclusion, and even later on I winced at some of the anecdotes. This man needed to get out more, I thought. But as the book progressed, it became more and more interesting, even engrossing. Carey writes with total, simple, clarity. He may not expand on matters about one wishes to know more, he does exhibit a certain vanity and even self-satisfaction, and he rarely, if ever, writes a killer sentence. But he is 100% honest, and when he writes about his research and, especially about his reading, he is excellent.
If you are interested in books, Oxford, or college politics, or preferably all three, read this book. Twice.