Vulpes Libris

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.

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

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.

Unexpected ProfessorWe 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


11 comments on “The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books by John Carey

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings
    December 8, 2014

    I’ve always liked Carey’s way of looking at things when I’ve come across his criticism and obviously my instincts were right! Off to see if my library has this wonderful-sounding book!

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings
    December 8, 2014

    (It does – I love my local library!)

  3. Kirsty D
    December 8, 2014

    I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

  4. Kate
    December 8, 2014

    The Intellectuals and the Masses was a game-changing book, absolutely brilliant writing and thinking, and so brave, resisting the cult of Leavis to say ‘what about the ordinary reader and her reading pleasure?’ So I think I’d like this memoir enormously.

  5. Becca
    December 8, 2014

    This sounds lovely. I like books about books too (and bookish things). I’ve never been to Oxford but I will get there some day. From the small extract you’ve given, he sounds very readable – I have never come across any of his book reviews, but I like the thought of books and ‘culture’ being for everyone, whatever your background.

  6. Jackie
    December 8, 2014

    Your review is full of warmth and it’s easy to see why you like the author so much. He does sound like someone who appreciates everything and conveys that. Self depreciation is always an attractive quality, too and unexpected from someone with such scholastic and career highlights. I hope I can find this book, as your terrific review makes it sound so enjoyable.

  7. Claire (The Captive Reader)
    December 10, 2014

    I’d never heard of Carey before I read The Unexpected Professor earlier this year, but I definitely finished it wanting to know more about him. And I certainly came away with a lengthy and intriguing reading list!

  8. kirstyjane
    December 11, 2014

    This is just lovely, all round!

  9. Hilary
    December 14, 2014

    Oh Kirsty – what a wonderful book you make this sound. I must read it. Which is all very well, because I spotted it when it was published and didn’t do anything about it, so thanks for reminding/persuading me. I am in sympathy with so much that he says, much of it speaks to me and my experience (though half a generation behind him). Thank you! A Christmas reading treat it will be – a present to myself.

  10. duncommutin
    December 28, 2014

    Thank you for the recommendation. This is going straight on to my reading list.

  11. Kate
    August 27, 2015

    So, 6 months later I’ve read this, and agree with you on many counts. I too wish i had been taught by him. He was a moderniser and a populariser without losing focus on the need for intellectual rigour. Having worked for a term at Oxford I understand the things he says about the Oxford establishment so much better than I think I would have done, had I read this before I went there. I wasn’t so interested in the personal memoir, what I really want to read is an intellectual history of Oxford as an institution in the 20thC, so what he has to say about that (a lot), is marvellous and so interesting.

    My big caveat on this book: Carey hardly mentions women in a professional capacity, which is revealing, but he’s a man of his upbringing and time. His sister and wife (and former girlfriend) get the most mentions, but apart from them, and his ambivalent relationship with Dame Helen Gardner whom he makes sound completely arrogantly mad, the Marina Warner of her day, I think he only mentions two women journalists/writers (Sarah Dunant and Polly Toynbee), and one or two women in his publishing contacts. No women authors, dead or alive, no women critics, no women teaching or researching alongside him. Very odd.

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