In an entirely new kind of biography, Oscar’s Books explores the personality of Oscar Wilde through his reading. For Wilde, as for many people, reading could be as powerful and transformative an experience as falling in love. He referred to the volumes that radically altered his vision of the world as his “golden books.” He gave books as gifts, often as part of his seduction campaigns of young men, and sometimes he literally ate books, tearing off corners of paper and chewing them as he read. Wilde’s beloved book collection was sold at the time of his trials to pay creditors and legal costs. Thomas Wright, in the course of his intensive research, has hunted down many of the missing volumes, which contain revealing markings and personal annotations never previously examined.
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This is a very original biography about Oscar Wilde, as his life is explained through the books that Wilde loved to read. I knew the basics about Wilde before reading this biography, but this book certainly shed a new light on this famous Irish author. I truly enjoyed reading this biography.
The biography is divided into three parts – Wilde’s childhood and teenage years, Wilde’s years from the beginning of his stay in London until the notorious libel issue, and the years from the beginning of Wilde’s unfortunate imprisonment up until the day he died. The book starts with the auction of Wilde’s beloved books and ends with his death, but in the between, it really is all about books.
Wright mentions the most important facts from Wilde’s life, of course, but his focus truly is on the books that Wilde devoured as a child, a teenager, an adult and an ailing men enjoying his last days in self-imposed exile in France (or rather, the self-imposed exile was a choice he made knowing he was not welcome in England anymore). He was bound to become a great author and a lover of books. He was raised in this spirit very thoroughly and being of a brilliant mind, such education really nurtured his refined intellect and love of books. He lived the life of a hero of one of the books he loved so much; this was inevitable. Wilde loved a wide range of books, from Ossianic romances to deep philosophical tomes, but his love of the Classics (Pater and a few other Greeks and Romans truly marked him for life) surpassed all other books.
Books were his life and he devoured them, metaphorically and literally. This is just one of the many interesting facts that I’d like to share in this review: Wilde felt that sometimes, to feel a book, one had to actually taste its pages, so he would occasionally tear off a corner of a page and chew on it while reading. Interestingly enough, although he wrote in his books and ate them, practically, no one else could touch his books. They were sacred items in his “holy” library and they had to be treated with utmost respect and care. I think he loved books far more than he did people, and he did love his wife, his children and some of his lovers (especially Alfred “Bosie” Douglas) very much. If we think we are bookworms, then we should think again: Wilde is definitely the king of all bookworms.
This is not a traditional biography, the focus really is on Wilde’s reading, books and writing, so the book includes a chronology of Wilde’s life in the beginning and several interesting lists (for example, several lists of books Wilde requested when he was in Reading Gaol) and explanations added at the end of the book.
If you like a good biography, then I definitely recommend you read Oscar’s Books. It presents Wilde in a completely new light and explains why he was like that: reading truly affects a person and it definitely did affect Wilde. You will read what a brilliant man Wilde was. He did not only write good stories and plays, but he was a bit of a genius who remembered what he read incredibly well and accurately, who was a master of speed-reading, and much more. It is really sad that he ended his life the way he did. He was imprisoned simply for what he was and when he came out of jail, he never fully recovered.
To finish off, what I also love about this biography is not just an original presentation of Wilde’s life, but I could tell that Wright really did his research and he himself is very fond of Wilde, which shows in every sentence. The book is written in rich, academic language, and I am a bit of a sucker for that, so I truly enjoyed this aspect of the book as well.
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READ FOR: Ireland Challenge 2010