A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I love books about books. I love memoirs. And, having been living in Oxford for getting on ten years, I love reading about my adopted home. Happily all three come together beautifully in John Carey’s The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books.
Originally, someone had suggested to Carey that he might write a history of English Literature, but after some thought he decided to write his own history in terms of the many books he has read, taught, reviewed, and written over his life and career. He writes movingly of his family and young life, especially during the Second World War. I was floored on just page 18 by this:
“I used to think that my father decided to take the family out of London towards the end of 1941 because the firm he worked for moved its offices. But I learned quite recently that in fact I was responsible. Apparently, after a particularly noisy night, I said to my father, ‘Are we dead yet, Daddy?’ This line, anticipating, I like to think, my later interest in Dickensian melodrama, so moved my tender-hearted father that he let the London house and moved us all out of danger to a Nottinghamshire village called Radcliffe-on-Trent.”
Oh, my heartstrings.
We follow Carey’s progression through to grammar school – he is a strident defender of the grammar school system, and believes that its decline has much to do with dominance of public school students in today’s Oxbridge – and then onward with a scholarship to St John’s, Oxford. At the time he was an undergraduate, the Oxford English curriculum only went up to the early 19th century. No Victorians or – perish the thought! – Modernists here! We watch him fall in love with the poetry of Donne and Milton, and I must say that having struggled with both those writers during my own undergraduate degree, I felt I learned more about them from this book than I did in a whole module on Renaissance writers back then. Oh, how I wish he had been my lecturer.
The book is endearingly self-deprecating. When it came time to sit his final exams, he writes that his tactic was largely to memorize as much poetry and he could and then string it together with explanations. He must surely have done a little more than that, because he graduated with his year’s top First. He went on to do a D.Phil, and then began teaching at various colleges in Oxford for his entire career.
When it comes to the chapter on the reviewing he has done – he is the chief book reviewer for the Sunday Times – I have read criticism from some that he merely lists some books he has liked. That is what he does: lays out several books that he has reviewed over the years that have stuck with him for one reasons or another. But I rather like that. I have noted down several for further investigation, and my husband is getting one of them as a Christmas present (whether he likes it or not).
Underneath the self-deprecation and the fascinating exploration of the literature he has loved is also a steely belief in what he thinks is right. As well as grammar schools, he also has been a firm atheist from a young age. That said, he still believes that many of the Bible’s teachings are good ones, and in that sense seems to regard himself as a cultural Christian. He also has strong views on the value of culture and the arts, and when he discusses the furore caused by his 1992 book The Intellectuals and the Masses he is as clear as ever about what he regards as the literary elite and their attempts to keep high culture away from “the masses”. This is a man who hates snobbery, and I love him for it. Indeed, he was instrumental in trying to encourage more Oxford applicants from state schools at a time when there were many at Oxford who were quite happy with the old way of doing things.
Carey also writes movingly of his wife, Gill, who he met as an undergraduate at Oxford (she also got a First that year), their sons, their house in the Cotswolds, and his bees. As well as admiring him and his work hugely, I also came away just really liking him. I may not have been Oxford material (I got a good solid mixture of As and Bs at school), but I wish I’d had the opportunity to be taught by him, although by reading this wonderful book, I feel I have been, even just a little bit.
John Carey, The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books (London: Faber, 2014). ISBN 9780571310920, RRP £17.99