BUILT OF BOOKS by Thomas Wright
Kirkus Star


How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde
Age Range: 1854 - 1900
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Revealing portrait of the noted—and notorious—writer, viewed through the prism of the books that educated, inspired and comforted him.

From birth, Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) was awash in words. His Anglo-Irish parents recounted aloud local tales, classic literature and their own work (Sir William was a pioneering folklorist, Lady Wilde “a famous poetess”), fostering both an early aptitude and undying love for language, writing and books. Wilde thrilled at collecting and devouring a variety of volumes; each added to his prodigious intellect as well as to a store of ideas that contributed to many a lush oration. His years at Oxford were marked by extravagant academic accomplishments, particularly in the classics he had loved since childhood, and by symposiums hosted with Socratic gusto in his school quarters. As an adult of growing notoriety, Wilde found sustenance, inspiration and solace in his prized library; he regarded the carefully collected books as both “a record of his life and as an emblem of his personality.” Wilde scholar Wright (editor: Oscar Wilde’s Table Talk, 2001), who spent 20 years reading this library, allows his own prose to convey his subject’s literary duality—excess and allusion. “Hubris had provoked the wrath of the Gods, and Doom entered the stage with running feet,” he writes of the guilty verdict in the infamous Queensbury trial, referring to the Greek tragedies that provided so much joy to Wilde the reader but also inescapably pervaded his life. In general, the author suggests, Wilde enjoyed “the pleasant confusion of life and art”—until his prison sentence forced him to become an actual tragic hero. At the start of his incarceration, all of his belongings, including his entire library, were sold at public auction to settle his debts. An “inconsolable” Wilde suffered the losses behind bars; he would never fully recover. The author accents this remarkable account with pages of Wilde’s reading lists, reproductions of annotated books and an index of referenced authors.

A sumptuous literary biography.

Pub Date: May 1st, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-8050-8993-6
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: John Macrae/Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2009


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