The Unexpected Professor
John Carey’s hugely acclaimed memoir, in which he reflects on a life immersed in literature.
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‘Among the wealthy elders, my views gave some offence. Two or three people walked out of my lecture in Hamburg. At a dinner in Oldenburg I was seated next to a senior academic who berated me for my leftist leanings – not what he expected of an Oxford professor…’
John Carey, best known for his provocative stance on the arts and the academic establishment, looks back on his journey from an ordinary background to Oxford’s oldest literary professorship. Books formed the backbone of his life: from Biggles in his boyhood home to G. K. Chesterton in his West London grammar school to rigorous scholarship on Milton, Donne and many others.
In this warm and funny memoir, he remembers afresh his encounters with the great (and not so great) works of English literature – the rewards, fulfilment and sheer pleasure to be found there.
[It] conveys with incomparable precision the sense of a young mind being opened by, and dwelling within, literature.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.