The Magazine

Reading Biblioscar

Among other things, Oscar Wilde was a man of letters and books.

May 25, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 34 • By LIAM JULIAN
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Built of Books

How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde

by Thomas Wright

Henry Holt, 384 pp., $27

As he has aged through
history, Oscar Wilde has been frequently distorted--co-opted, really--to symbolize a number of identities and agendas. He is Wilde the homosexual saint, Wilde the Irish nationalist, Wilde the anti-bourgeois, Wilde the Catholic convert, Wilde the martyred romantic.

Too often absent from the list is Wilde the literary talent. Serious consideration of his writing and thinking is habitually subordinated to exposition of the more sensational aspects of his personality and biography. It's a shame, and a problem to which Built of Books is a fresh solution.

Punctuated as it is with suppositions and assumptions, Built of Books is not a traditional scholarly examination: Those seeking such a review of Wilde's life would do better with Richard Ellmann's 1987 biography, Oscar Wilde. What Wright offers is a new way of understanding and appreciating Wilde through the books that Wilde consumed and annotated and interacted with throughout his days. This is a book about a man who loved books--lived books--and for whom literature and its characters were more real than reality itself.

"After reading the Comédie Humaine," Wilde wrote, "one begins to believe that the only real people are the people who never existed."

Oscar Wilde was the son of two finely educated parents. His father, Sir William Wilde, was not only a renowned surgeon but an amateur archaeologist, antiquarian, and folklorist. His mother was a famous poet who wrote under the name Speranza. Their house swelled with books. Sir William's library "was comprised of the finest literature of various European cultures in their original languages .  .  . [a] vast emporium of multi-colored editions of all shapes and sizes." And while Speranza had no one room devoted to her books, she owned mounds of them, "piling them up from floor to ceiling, or leaving them lying around on the furniture."

Well before Oscar could read, his parents, especially his mother, soaked him with literature. Speranza would recite poetry to her infant son, and as an older child, he would listen as she read from "Lady Clare" or "Hiawatha" and so learned poetry's musical, sensual loveliness. "Words!" he wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray, "Mere words! .  .  . They seemed to be able to give a plastic form to formless things, and to have a music of their own as sweet as that of viol or of lute."

For Thomas Wright, reading Dorian Gray for the first time, as a 16-year-old, after plucking it from the shelf of a secondhand bookshop in Cambridge,
Wilde's paean to the magic of words must have been oddly visceral. After finishing just one chapter Wright was, himself, overwhelmed: "Wilde's elegant prose and his agile intellect dazzled me. .  .  . I became intoxicated on the novel," which he read some 15 or 20 times, occasionally finishing and beginning anew in the same day. It was the start of "his great literary mission" to read every book that Wilde had read.

Thus the genesis of Built of Books. Wright skipped school for the local library, where he read the writers that mattered the most to Wilde: Plato, Keats, Shakespeare, the Greek tragedians, Dante, Flaubert, Baudelaire. He attended Magdalen College, Oxford (as had Wilde), where he continued his research. He even lived in a room that contained Wilde's old fireplace.

With every book I read I seemed to draw closer to my hero. I began to realize just how important Wilde's golden books had been to him. I felt, too, that his biographers had placed undue emphasis on the dramatic episodes of his life, and not enough on the inner world of his intellect and imagination.

This approach makes Built of Books unique. The work is not precise--precisely because it tries to recreate the ephemeral, personal, and largely hidden relationships that once existed between Wilde and his books. Wright must frequently extrapolate meanings and significance from clues as skimpy as broken bits of Wilde's textual underlining. (Some such extrapolations, admittedly, are a stretch.) Furthermore, Wright works with an incomplete record: Although much is known of the contents of Wilde's library--largely because it was auctioned off while he was imprisoned--and although Wilde's letters and writings teem with allusions, gaps in his epic reading list do exist.