Review: John Carey, The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books (Faber. ISBN 9780571310920)
My first encounter with John Carey was hearing him on Dickens at the St Cross Building – the English Faculty at Oxford University. His Violent Effigy is sharp and illuminating; but I kept going back to his lectures because his readings lit up the comedy which was prone to be undervalued by over-serious youngsters such as I was. Much later I read the Faber Book of Science, a polyphony of observation and ideas superbly expressed by scientists from Da Vinci to Dawkins, which Carey edited. That the same man could have filled these diverse roles suggests broad and healthy sympathies. Now his sparky, wide-ranging, and often hilarious autobiography seems to confirm that assessment. If there is a problem with the book it’s a common enough one with biographies, in which the rise is more interesting than the summit and decline; and especially with the autobiographies of successful people, which rarely chart the decline and linger instead, smugly, in the sunny uplands.
The son of professionals who left school at 15, Carey has bucked the family trend of non-academic anonymity. But he was a late developer, and frankly this book is all the better for it: the chapters on childhood and youth are easily the best. The Unexpected Professor presents itself as ‘a history of English literature and me, how we met, how we got on, what came of it’. The ‘me’ element turns out to be considerably more engaging than the English lit aspect. Here, in the opening chapters, the detail of common objects and habits of life imparts vitality, and there are laugh-out-loud moments, especially in his account of national service.