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Saturday, August 8, 2009

Book Review: Oscar Wilde's Reading List

Book Review - 'Built of Books - How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde,' by Thomas Wright - Review -
Michael Shae writes:

How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde
By Thomas Wright

Oscar Wilde’s library was dispersed on April 24, 1895, while he was in prison awaiting trial on charges of sodomy and gross indecency. It was sold for nearly nothing, in carelessly assembled lots, and mostly snapped up by dealers at a raucous auction held to pay his creditors, primarily the Marquess of Queensberry, who was awarded £600 in court costs after Wilde had disastrously and unsuccessfully sued him for libel. It is only partially possible to reconstruct the contents of Wilde’s collection of some 2,000 books, through the incomplete auction catalog, booksellers’ receipts, lists of titles he had requested in prison, and references in his letters and writings. A few of the books were bought by his friends in secondhand shops and restored to him, but only around 50 are known to survive.

So the persistent researcher may still track down at least a few of Wilde’s own annotations and doodlings and wine stains and broken spines, parsing them for whatever they may reveal. Thomas Wright goes further in“Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde.” His decision to write what is billed as “an entirely new kind of biography,” based on Wilde’s reading, began in a moment of imitatio Oscari. Wright explains that he was so bedazzled at 16 by “The Picture of Dorian Gray” that he resolved to make up the deficiencies of his education by reading everything Wilde had read. He admits that he hoped to find in Wilde not just a Virgilian guide to the world of ideas, but “a sort of Socratic mentor, who would help me give birth to a new self.”

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