I must admit to being intrigued by any self-proclaimed ‘Histories of Everything’, so I leapt at the prospect of a dense history of my favourite creative art and how it flourished in our past centuries, right down to a couple of writers who died in 2019. And occidental only: that is, apart from a sidelong glance at Hafez, Tagore, and Li Po’s fellow poets. Unless you regard the Russians, that is – bridging East and West.
John Carey’s The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books has three intertwined components: autobiographical memories from Carey, a prolific author and book reviewer and former Merton Professor of English Literature at Oxford; his six-decade interaction with that university; and ‘English literature and me, how we met, how we got on, what came of it’. The book is also a microcosm of twentieth- century Britain and its educational, intellectual, and class systems. Carey, born in 1934 into a far from wealthy family, benefited from the grammar school system that enabled him to win a scholarship to St John’s College, Oxford, where he gained a congratulatory first in English.