Built of Books

Oscar Wilde’s life viewed through the prism of his library.

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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.”

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.

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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.

Wilde’s was a working library and its volumes were often stacked on the floor. Wilde scribbled in them, marked passages, and sometimes even chewed on them. (Literally – he would tear corners off pages and pop them in his mouth while reading intensely.)

He dribbled crumbs and jam into them and sometimes used flowers to mark his place – all of which left an unusually personal imprint on his collection. He also borrowed widely from his books and perhaps even stole. (Plagiarism, he told a friend, “is the privilege of the appreciative man.”)

But there was no happy ending for either Wilde or the library he loved.

Although genuinely fond of his wife and devoted to his two young sons, Wilde’s attraction to young men eventually came to dominate his life. (The section of his library devoted to books on “Socratic” love between men grew with his passions.)

Finally, in 1895, some reckless decisions on Wilde’s part led to his trial and conviction for “gross indecency.” He was sentenced to two years hard labor in jail.

He lost his family, his home, his public standing, and – in a particularly punishing turn of events – his beloved library was broken up and sold at auction for a mere fraction of its value.

(These are the physical books that Wright has tracked. He located about 50 in public or private collections and was able to examine almost all of them.)

In prison, Wilde clung to books. He read and reread both the King James Version of the Bible and Dante’s “Inferno.”

Finally a humane warden noted Wilde’s suffering – if there ever was a man ill-prepared for hard, physical labor it was Wilde – and decided to make better use of his talents, appointing him prison librarian. Wilde did his best to assemble and disseminate a fine collection of books for his fellow inmates (whom he called “my pals”).

When Wilde left prison, he fled first to France. Friends, hoping to ease his re-emergence into the outside world, treated him to the nucleus of a new collection of books.

But Wilde never really recovered. He was broken both physically and mentally.

He drifted around Europe like a tired ghost and finally died in a hotel in France in 1900. It was a wretched ending, and yet also one uncannily reminiscent of some of the Greek tragedies and French novels that Wilde loved best (most particularly Balzac’s “Lost Illusions” and Stendhal’s “Scarlet and Black”).

Fittingly, Wright notes, at the moment of Wilde’s passing, the spines of his books on their shelves were among the last things he would have seen.

Wright’s account of a life shaped – for better and for worse – by the power of the written word is a recommended read for all who have ever been moved by the power of a book.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.

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