The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books – John Carey

unexpected profFirst, I must admit to a close friendship with the author. For many years now we have been bosom buddies drawn together by a shared love of books. We have had similar literary trajectories and our backgrounds, coming as we do from fairly humble (but not working class) backgrounds, nurtured by our respective grammar schools, are a neat fit.

We chose different career paths: he, an academic; your blogger, a publisher. In my case this was a simple choice; unlike John, I was a lazy child with a very average brain; he was demonically hard-working and possessed of a huge engine. Otherwise I have little doubt I would have taken over his Merton Chair in English at Oxford as soon as he vacated it.

I’d better clear up this friendship claim. Whenever I see John punditing on television, hear him on the radio or read him in The Sunday Times (where he has been lead book reviewer most of my adult life) I feel we know each other as siblings. I nearly always agree with him, and when I don’t, I feel I must have missed something. As well as being a brilliant chap he is engaging and never academic. He communicates at a level even I can grasp.

Well, you may have guessed that we have never met, never even passed on an escalator. So this book is a real treat for me. It outlines John Carey’s life, and in that it could claim to be a slight autobiography, but principally it is the story of his life through the books he has read, the poetry he has studied, all related to his career at Oxford. The early chapters give a fascinating account of family life, wartime evacuation and schooling. He, as I do, mourns the loss of grammar schools which provided Oxbridge with a far higher percentage of state school pupils than they now have. The destruction of a meritocratic system which actually worked is a tragedy. All we had to do was improve standards for those who went to the old secondary schools. Now Oxbridge is stuffed with public school products, some bright, some not, and foreign students who can pay exquisitely high fees. Bah!

Carey’s life in books. Everything from The Dandy and Biggles to Milton and Shakespeare get a mention and an analysis, sometimes fleeting, sometimes in some depth. It is a non-stop excursion in literature. Why does he rate Dickens? Who can’t he stomach, and why? Above all, he makes me want to read authors who have eluded me and reread those I have forgotten.

Whether or not you are a friend of Carey, join me, one of his closest pals, and discover his charm, his warmth and let his passion for literature envelop you for a few hours very well spent.

Rating: 5 stars

profile3Reviewed by Richard

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