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An Oxford English professor remembers
on 25 October 2014
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.