Built of Books
Oscar Wilde’s life viewed through the prism of his library.
How beguiling a character seems the young Oscar Wilde. We are told that he “swaggers” through the pages of the memoirs of his friends, “supremely self-assured in manner, intellectually intrepid and precocious, with his striking dandified dress and towering physique, scattering epigrams and poems in his wake.”Skip to next paragraph
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Wilde was a brilliant scholar and droll, rapid-fire commentator. He was erudite beyond what most of us can even begin to imagine.
Except that now, thanks to Thomas Wright, we can imagine. Wright, in a remarkable labor of love, has dedicated much of his life (about two decades) to a quest to intellectually reconfigure and read Wilde’s personal library. The result is Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde.
It could be argued that all of us are indelibly marked by the books we read. But there can be few people for whom this is as strikingly true as it was of Wilde, who became celebrated as a playwright, poet, author, and professional wit.
Books were the driving force of his existence, from earliest childhood on up, and later in life, when he was brought low by tragedy and disgrace, they were his last remaining comfort.
Wright has gone to great lengths not only to learn about the titles that shaped Wilde’s life, but to get his hands on as many of Wilde’s own copies of those books as possible. The result is an idiosyncratic yet insightful take on the man Wright refers to as “my hero.”
Wilde was born in 1854 into an intensely bookish home. As a child, he soaked up Celtic mythology, fairy tales, poetry, and legend. (He once claimed that as a boy he learned to “think” in stories.) A passion for fairy tales in particular bred in Wilde a deep trust in the imaginative and an accompanying scorn for the pragmatic – a worldview that would not always serve him well.
As a student at Oxford, Wilde became one of the finest classical scholars of his age. By the time he was an adult, he was proficient in Latin, Greek, modern and medieval French and Italian, and German.
His wide-ranging reading firmly entrenched Wilde in an idealistic belief that the pursuit of beauty was paramount in life – a conviction often out of step with the bourgeois London of his era.
When Wilde married he chose an almost equally bookish woman. Their home in London included a fabulous first-floor library – complete with chair rail, buttercup yellow walls, and “shiny lacquered red-brown woodwork” – for Wilde and his 2,000-volume collection, which included works of science, philosophy, archaeology, philology, comparative mythology, art history, and literature.