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Customer Review

25 of 34 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A life in books, 31 Mar. 2014
This review is from: The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books (Kindle Edition)
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 mini-lectures on the writers that he has loved and studied.
Overall, this is an entertaining and engaging memoir, and I enjoyed the insights into academic life, but I did find that sometimes the literary essays seemed out of place and too detailed. For example, he goes into Milton’s Latin treatise “Christian Doctrine” at some length, as he does into his discovery of a previously unknown poet who knew Donne. He even quotes from some of the reviews of his own books, reviews of which he is patently extremely proud, seeing nothing odd in boasting of being reviewed in such newspapers as The Scottsdale Arizona Progress or the Fort Worth Texas Morning Star-Telegram – important papers no doubt, but hardly likely to impress the regular reader of this book. At one point he even says, when talking about his good reviews, “In case this all sounds disagreeably triumphalist…”Well, yes, it does a bit. In fact all the way through I felt that Carey has a bit of a chip on his shoulder (perhaps from not having been to public school like so many of his peers?) and constantly feels the need to justify his own thoughts and actions. This becomes tedious.
He’s certainly a name-dropper, even with the doctors who treated him when he was very ill, and is “sure they saved my life”. Well probably. Unless it was the cleaning lady who did the trick, who tapped the ash from her cigarette into her bucket (really? In an isolation ward where he is being barrier nursed?) who said consolingly “you won’t die, love”. And he didn’t. These odd little interludes grated on me.
Although always standing up for the common reader, he also appears to think that his readers are possibly pretty ignorant, for when he mentions that Oxford’s Radcliffe Science Library is open access, feels impelled to explain what open access means. It seems unlikely to me that anyone reading this book won’t have some prior knowledge of how libraries work.
He also shows an unpleasant tendency to feel entitled to act as he wishes, presumably due to his innate erudition. At a Larkin reading he tells us that Larkin “said he wanted no one to make a recording or take notes. Luckily I was seated behind a large sofa, so was able to take notes unobserved…”No need to respect Larkin’s request, then….
He also implies that he single-handedly instituted reforms in the curriculum and teaching methods at Oxford. Perhaps he did. But was he really such a lone voice in the wilderness?
So yes, I did enjoy reading this, although I found myself bridling at regular intervals, and yes, I did enjoy Carey’s mini-lectures (but then I’m a literary soul myself) but I did find the whole book rather unpleasantly self-obsessed, an impression Carey never gives when he appears on TV or radio, and this disconnect puzzles me. Do I recommend the book? Yes indeed – it’s just a shame he couldn’t have taken himself a little less pompously.
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 2 Apr 2014 10:26:49 BDT
Last edited by the author on 2 Apr 2014 10:29:11 BDT
B J M says:
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on 2 Apr 2014 15:28:45 BDT
Thank you for taking the time to comment on my review. However, I'm not completely clear on what you're actually objecting to - do you feel that I have been unjust? What is your point about attending public school? All I said was that I thought Carey had a bit of a chip on his shoulder - I wasn't suggesting that public schools are in any way "better" than grammar schools. Perhaps you could explain.
Thank you

In reply to an earlier post on 7 Aug 2014 20:32:32 BDT
I think that possibly BJM is not too clear what s/he is objecting to either and anger has been sublimated into sarcasm and you are being 'outed' as a public-school sympathiser. Good review, Amanda: hardly uncritical but not what I'd call carping; as in fair-minded, i.e. what you set out to be. [ interested to know what BJM makes of the chapter on Hitler in 'The Intellectuals and the Masses.'!].

In reply to an earlier post on 11 Oct 2014 20:15:01 BDT
An excellent review, even if it did put me off buying the book! There are too many academics around who think the rest of us need educating - and Carey comes over here as one of the worst.

Posted on 30 Mar 2015 08:36:00 BDT
Gothic Fan says:
I don't really understand why you felt the need to make that jibe about public schools and suggest that Carey has a chip on his shoulder because he didn't go to one. He makes it very clear that he admires Grammar Schools and mourns their passing.
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