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4.6 out of 5 stars
4.6 out of 5 stars
The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books
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on 29 August 2017
Well written and humorous, with some challenging views on many things.
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on 11 August 2017
Unexpectedly good. Consistently interesting. Makes me wish I had met Professor Carey.
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on 9 June 2014
You don't have to have gone to grammar school, or loved Wordsworth, or Shakespeare's `Antony and Cleopatra', or George Eliot, or Seamus Heaney's `Death of a Naturalist', to identify with and enjoy this book. Still less do you have to have been anywhere near Oxford, never mind studied there. There is something for everyone (well, everyone who reads) in this latest offering by John Carey and, given Carey's egalitarian philosophy, that is just as it should be.
You will probably get more out of the book if you know Donne (I don't), Milton (my knowledge is scanty) and a few more among the wealth of writers Carey espouses from Elizabethan times to the late twentieth century but don't be put off by a lack of literary learning. A little knowledge is a wonderful thing. You may be surprised to learn, as I was, that DH Lawrence was something of a fascist as well as a misogynist (I paraphrase); you may be shocked, as I was, to hear terrible truths of WB Yeats whose works I have always admired. You don't have to have been led, as Carey was (and I was too) to literature by membership of a church choir; we all come to literature in different ways and anyone just about anywhere reading Carey's latest offering will find in it, somewhere, something to identify with.
You don't have to agree with everything he says - of course not. As a woman and a feminist I am annoyed that he says little enough about women writers, not least Virginia Woolf, despite his acknowledgment elsewhere of the wrongs suffered by women. You don't have to be of the older generation, as I am, although twenty years younger than Carey, to identify with the bygone era of Carey's youth, a time long before the internet, computers and even television. The book is, of course, not merely a treatise on literature. As the title suggests, it is intensely autobiographical. One of the most surprising - and funny (and yes the book is full of humour) - early parts, I found, were the pages on Carey's National Service. When he comes to Oxford he is rightly disparaging about the snobbery and absurd rituals although he too is part of the same establishment.
One of the things I liked most about the book was that Carey reflected on where he was when he was reading a particular book - something many readers like myself will identify with, even if the books, time and place were entirely different. His account of being sent out into the corridor in the hospital to await the birth of his first child made me laugh: `I tried to read an Agatha Christie but it didn't seem to make any sense.'
Carey goes on to tell of his second career as a reviewer. He tells of how Seamus Heaney thanked him for a review - something that most of us probably forget to do although we get angry when we get bad ones. Carey himself was sensitive to this before he began publishing outside the narrow world of academia: `sentences that delight you with their wit and acuity when you write them can be horribly hurtful to the wretched creature at whom they are aimed.'
I have my own reasons to thank John Carey. In October 2003 he was kind enough to include in an article in the Sunday Times a few words on my book `Eating Wolves' when it was published by a tiny press (Dewi Lewis). The article was about books he had liked when he was reading them as part of his work chairing the Booker Prize. Those few kind words meant I sold at least a few hundred books and libraries round the country ordered copies. In 2006 Carey was at the Edinburgh Book Festival and read from his work `What Good Are the Arts?' I went to hear him and afterwards saw him wandering round with his wife. I wanted to thank him but was too shy to approach him. I may have expected a rebuff or perhaps thought it was too late. Now I have a second opportunity.
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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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on 13 July 2014
Recommended for anyone who loves the art of writing, as well as for those who do not see its purpose. Carey's reading list is unbelievable and his guidance through the varied landscape of literature is faultless. If this does not inspire you to read widely, nothing will.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 18 October 2017
I was vaguely aware of John Carey as a prolific book reviewer for the Sunday Times, but only recently learnt of his distinguished academic career (ending up as emeritus Merton professor of English Literature at Oxford). This autobiography was originally conceived as a history of English Literature, but he's opted instead to write about the relationship between his life and literature - "how we met, how we got on, what came of it" [p xi]. This focus on the personal allows him to share some dissenting - but stimulating - opinions on some so-called classics: for example, he finds that "Wuthering Heights" is "unexpectedly tiresome" [p223], and "Don Quixote" to be "boring and hateful" [p195]. Other books and authors are highly praised: for example, Milton, Arnold, Orwell and Conrad, to take a few at random from here.

The story of his life is woven into these encounters with books, which he tells in a straightforward fashion: born in South London, evacuated to Nottinghamshire during the war, national service, scholarship to Oxford, where he plunges into research, teaching and academic politics. It's an enjoyable read from a writer with an assured touch who's also a born educator. To take one example, there's an illuminating explanation on p207 about the difference between Catholic beliefs ("if you do good deeds on earth you will be rewarded in heaven") and Protestant theology ("if you believe you were saved, you were saved") and their implications which arises from a discussion about the exchanges between Thomas More and William Tyndale. A pleasant, interesting book which I enjoyed reading a lot.
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on 29 April 2014
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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on 23 October 2016
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 subsequent academic life at Oxford at a time when its snobbery, class hierarchy and antiquated eccentricities went entirely unchallenged. Carey has a prodigious appetite for all things literary which is infectious and communicated in a not too overly academic manner as to be inaccessible to the average reader like myself. I was particularly struck by the Left-leaning Carey's enthusiasm for D H Lawrence which is odd considering the gulf that separates them politically. It is probably the sheer boldness of Lawrence's undemocratic, Dionysian streak that he finds attractive and the way in which Lawrence's synaesthetic sensibility knits the world into a pre-reflective unity. Carey is sure to inspire others to re-read and re-evaluate Lawrence. Where I must part company with Carey is in his understanding of what is to be considered 'art' as an entirely subjective evaluation. Would I consider Duchamp's Fountain and Bernini's Ecstasy of St Teresa to be regarded equally as works of art? I don't think so.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 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.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 18 March 2014
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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