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4.6 out of 5 stars
4.6 out of 5 stars
Oscar's Books: A Journey Around the Library of Oscar Wilde
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on 8 September 2008
The biography explores Wilde through his books and reading; it makes compelling reading. The author's enthusiasm for the subject, and his very original research, give the book a rare sparkle and vitality.The object is to examine the inner man, the mind, of Oscar Wilde.
Whilst it is scholarly, it remains a joy to read; Wildes golden parents, his immersion into Irish folk lore, the exceptional child, the scholar, the intellectual, the witty scourge of the English bourgeoisie, the decadence, the fall, the death. A hero's journey through Ossian perhaps!
Not least interesting is Wright's own journey to write this book, which forms the last chapter. I couldn't put it down. Outstanding.
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on 20 May 2011
This book's title is interesting; its contents are more so. From the title anyone might expect an account of Wilde's reading and of its influence on his style and ideas. Readers expecting this will not be disappointed but the book is multi-faceted. It looks at the place of books in Wilde's life : from the character of his Tite Street library to his prison requests for books. 'Built of Books' is a splendid achievement. Of special excellence are the chapters on Wilde's library at Tite Street. We learn about its appearance, its contents, Wilde's habits of working and some of the visitors he entertained there. The author's skills allow us to imagine ourselves back in the 'Holy of Holies'. This is a book of exceptional value. There is nothing like it in the literature on Wilde.
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VINE VOICEon 30 December 2008
Back when I was studying Wilde at university in the Winter of 2007, I remember coming across a statistic: that estimates point to over 2,000,000 books/articles having been written about Wilde. So is there anything left to say?

Wright's book really does shed a new light on the author, though it is not only a case of presenting new facts; it is a seemingly new way of looking at writers from this period. In particular, I think it is fair to say that Wright has a very 'imaginitive' way of using vague bibliographical or historical facts to illuminate the life of Wilde.

For example, Wright offers the speculation that 'on Wilde's shelves you probably would have found a book by Thomas Carlyle within speaking distance of a mawkish Victorian novel, and a dainty edition of Pater shaking with fear next to Melmoth the Wanderer'. At first, I became mildly annoyed when reading these sorts of statements from Wright as they appear to be based on no facts whatsoever. But as you work your way through this book, you see how Wright is doing something academically unconventional yet highly effective.

Of course there is a wealth of material which Wright looks at which has its provenance in contemporary sources (especially the auctioneer's catalogue of Wilde's books when all his possessions were sold as he headed off to jail in 1895). But almost every commentator of this period, in my experience, has stopped their socio-bibliographical analysis as soon as they run out of concrete material on which to base their research. By offering a constant flow of suggestive images of how Wilde lived as an author, it really does put Oscar in a novel light.

Through this ingenious method of analysis, the reader not only begins to understand Wilde's writing, but also his personality (though of course the two are intertwined). Looking at his upbringing, from his father's library to his school syllabus; his time spent at Oxford, both in the lecture theatre and on field trips with professors; and all the way up to his downfall, so to speak, Wright's book does not leave a stone unturned.

Finally, this book will be useful to those studying the period, but is also a remarkably easy-going read, even if you're compeltely unfamiliar with Wilde.
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on 21 October 2013
Ever since being overwhelmed by his first reading of The Picture of Dorian Gray at the age of sixteen, Thomas Wright has been a self-confessed Wildean. Wright's appreciation for the life and works of Oscar Wilde was so great that he applied to study at Magdalen College, Oxford, Wilde's alma mater, and while most students are content to squander their student loans on curry and booze, Wright blew his £5000 bursary on Wilde's copy of Swinburne's Essays and Studies. This devotion to Oscar Wilde led Wright to undertake an amazingly daunting literary challenge - in a moment of quixotic madness Wright decided to read every book that his hero had read. The results of Wright's quest to uncover the story of Wilde's life through his reading are collected together in Oscar's Books, an unusual and fascinating biography of a voracious reader.

Wright contends that books were the single most important influence in Oscar Wilde's life; that, in essence, Wilde built his character out of the books that he read and that his first reading of some of his favourite volumes was `as significant as his first meetings with friends and lovers'. Wright is certainly able to make a good case for the importance of books to Wilde by creating in Oscar's Books a chronological account of the events of Wilde's life that includes a detailed investigation of the kind of reading material that Wilde was drawn to at the time. Born in 1854, Oscar Wilde was raised in a book-filled house in Dublin by two precociously intellectual parents. Wilde's poet mother Speranza had perhaps the greatest influence on him during his childhood and she raised Wilde on Celtic myths, Romantic poetry and Irish folklore. This love of myth and folklore would be reflected in Wilde's later work, particularly in his short stories. When Wilde left home to attend boarding school he continued to be an avid reader and developed into an excellent linguist and classical scholar. After studying at Trinity College, Dublin Wilde attended Magdalen College, Oxford and continued to supplement his formal education with a self-directed investigation of the world through great works of literature. It was at Magdalen that Wilde first read Walter Pater's Studies in the History of the Renaissance, the book that Wilde himself thought struck him with the greatest sense of revelation. So much so in fact that Wilde claimed never to travel without a copy of this book `which has had such a strange influence on my life'.

While he may have spent his whole life accompanied by books, perhaps the most persuasive, certainly the most poignant, example of the importance of literature to Wilde is seen in the moment that tragedy befell him. In April 1895, as Wilde was awaiting trial for charges of gross indecency, the entire contents of his house on Tite Street was put up for auction for £600 in order to pay the costs to the Marquess of Queensberry that Wilde had incurred when he unsuccessfully sued him for libel. Among all the possessions that were pawed over and bought for a song by gawkers, dealers and curiosity hunters, the material loss that caused Wilde the greatest pain was the destruction of the library that had taken him thirty years to compile. It was heartbreaking to see his lifelong passion broken down during the course of a single afternoon into so many cheap job lots. Indeed, while in prison, Wilde credited the maintenance of his sanity to the fact that the governor of the gaol permitted him to keep a limited stock of books with him in his cell.

With Oscar's Books Wright has certainly managed to impress upon the reader the importance of the written word to the life and works of Oscar Wilde. Books seem very likely to have been the one true love of Wilde's life and his later years after he left prison and was forced into `going out into the world without a single book' were only made bearable by the fact that his friends helped him to begin to rebuild his library while he was exiled in Naples and Paris and left nearly destitute. Unfortunately, while Wright is able to portray the staggering range of Wilde's reading, his is forced to rely quite heavily on conjecture. The exact moment that Wilde decided to dedicate his life to reading can never be known and, since Wilde never kept a journal or detailed personal record, a great deal has to be made of passing comments in letters and various scribbles in the margins of books. Further, given the massive volume of material that Wilde read during his lifetime, no complete list of all his books can be produced, leaving Wright to rely on the auctioneer's catalogue from the Tite Street house sale and the request list that Wilde drew up whilst in gaol. Having said all that, Wright has done the very best job possible with the information available and has really gone above and beyond the work of most biographers when he travelled the globe to track down the exact volumes that had been owned by Wilde. Oscar's Books is an almost unique biographical event and an excellent companion volume to the many conventional biographies of Wilde that are available.
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on 15 October 2008
This is an extremely well written book with some new material on Oscar and it sheds new light on his development as an author. I didn't think there was much else left to be said about Oscar Wilde as almost every aspect of his life and works have been analysed in detail over the last 100 years or so, therefore it was a delightful surprise to find this book.

The book is beautifully produced as well and reading it was a pleasure.

Recommended to anyone with an interest in Wilde
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on 21 October 2014
This is a wonderfully well written biography of Oscar Wilde, and one which takes a very different approach, for it covers the great writer’s life purely from a literary perspective, i.e. from the books that he read, owned, loved and those he despised. It is a particularly apt method for the study of this great writer and wit, for if any man can be said to have lived a life through books and reading, it was Wilde. They shaped his very existence and he relied them on completely as inspiration and as constant personal touchstones, especially during his prison sentence in the late 1890s. He often claimed that books had more of a reality for him than mundane, non-literary life.
This biography absorbs the tenor and essence of the late 19th Century society in which Wilde moved and the times are vivid and alive for the reader. Both as an original way of looking at Oscar Wilde, and a source of the historical experience of his times and society, this is very much worth reading.
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on 11 February 2016
A fascinating book and such an innovative approach to biography. Beautifully & lovingly written, it provides real insights and will appeal to anyone who is interested in Wilde, books and/or excellent writing.
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on 24 April 2015
A most interesting read
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on 24 February 2015
Nice book
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on 24 September 2010
Sadly, I was slightly disappointed by this. I dont feel I learned anything new about Oscar Wilde. Also, his classical education is heavy going even to read about - and I felt bored by some of it.
The most interesting thing about this book is the story behind it - the story of Thomas Wright's remarkable devotion to Wilde and the way it has shaped his life!
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