A professor of literature explains why he loves books; The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books

A professor of literature explains why he loves books

Mar 15th 2014 | From the print edition

The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books. By John Carey. Faber & Faber; 361 pages; $23.81 and £18.99. Buy from Amazon.comAmazon.co.uk

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. It suggests that this well-known book reviewer and author retains strong opinions and a love of controversy—writers who thought his reviews hurtful once formed an anti-Carey club—but also portrays a sensitive man dedicated to academic study and to reading. He admits that “courage matters more than understanding poetry” but, having read almost everything there is to read, he is unapologetic about trying to convey just what an enjoyable activity reading is.

Born and brought up in London, Mr Carey devoured books from an early age. After the Beano, the Biggles books andChums magazine, the singing of hymns and the King James Bible, came the discovery of poetry—Keats, Arnold, Tennyson and Wordsworth. Grammar school and national service led to Oxford, a university that was very different from the one that students experience today. Whereas now they are welcomed with placards and balloons, he was met by a gruff porter who told him the number of his room and bade him goodnight. There were old-style dons and much that he disapproved of, but he worked hard and thrived. His “aim was to learn, not to have fun…those two aims seldom coincide (a truth that might be made clearer to those starting out on education)”.

Moving from college to college as he climbed the academic ladder, always within Oxford, Mr Carey, a specialist in Donne and Milton, helped to drag his department into the Victorian age and then into the 20th century. He wrote books on Dickens and Thackeray, thought George Eliot “by a long stretch the most intelligent of all English novelists”, and considered Lawrence, Orwell and Conrad the best of more modern writers. Teaching was so enjoyable it felt “wrong to be paid for it” and he did an increasing amount of reviewing.

Having chaired a number of literary prizes, including the Booker twice, Mr Carey found himself on the other side of the fence when his biography of William Golding was nominated for a James Tait Black award. His elation on learning that he had won is described with endearing candour: “I was far more moved than was appropriate for someone who knew literary prizes to be meaningless.” The short final chapter provides refreshing answers to the question, “Why Read?” It concludes, “Reading is freedom. Now read on.”


The Unexpected Professor: an Oxford Life Hardcover

by John Carey (Author)

Best known for his provocative take on cultural issues in The Intellectuals and the Masses and What Good Are the Arts?, John Carey describes in this warm and funny memoir the events that formed him – an escape from the London blitz to an idyllic rural village, army service in Egypt, an open scholarship to Oxford and an academic career that saw him elected, age 40, to Oxford’s oldest English Literature professorship. He frankly portrays the snobberies and rituals of 1950s Oxford, but also his inspiring meetings with writers and poets – Auden, Graves, Larkin, Heaney – and his forty-year stint as a lead book-reviewer for the Sunday Times. This is a book about the joys of reading – in effect, an informal introduction to the great works of English literature. But it is also about war and family, and how an unexpected background can give you the insight and the courage to say the unexpected thing.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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