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The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books Hardcover – 20 Mar 2014
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[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)
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.See all Product Description
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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.Read more ›
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.Read more ›
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'.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
A thoroughly engaging, evocative and amusing account of the author's childhood during the years of WWII, his voluntary military service in a far-flung outpost in Egypt and his... Read morePublished 4 months ago by wiseprotector
This was a gift for someone else, so I have only dipped into it - couldn't resist having a peak before I wrapped it up - and it looks extremely readable and engaging, full of... Read morePublished 7 months ago by J. Williams
Truly enjoyable memoir and fascinating insight into Oxford life and Carey's subsequent career with the Sunday Times. Read morePublished 15 months ago by R. Brocklehurst
Enjoyable mix of Eng Lit and personal and professional life, especially enjoyable if you are an Eng Lit graduate.Published 16 months ago by Will
This is just my kind of book. I did a degree in English Lit in the mid-1960s and spent the next forty years sharing my love of literature with school pupils and college students. Read morePublished 18 months ago by Petherwin
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