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Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde

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An entirely new kind of biography, Built of Books explores the mind and personality of Oscar Wilde through his taste in books This intimate account of Oscar Wilde's life and writings is richer, livelier, and more personal than any book available about the brilliant writer, revealing a man who built himself out of books. His library was his reality, the source of so much tha An entirely new kind of biography, Built of Books explores the mind and personality of Oscar Wilde through his taste in books This intimate account of Oscar Wilde's life and writings is richer, livelier, and more personal than any book available about the brilliant writer, revealing a man who built himself out of books. His library was his reality, the source of so much that was vital to his life. A reader first, his readerly encounters, out of all of life's pursuits, are seen to be as significant as his most important relationships with friends, family, or lovers. Wilde's library, which Thomas Wright spent twenty years reading, provides the intellectual (and emotional) climate at the core of this deeply engaging portrait. One of the book's happiest surprises is the story of the author's adventure reading Wilde's library. Reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges's fictional hero who enters Cervantes's mind by saturating himself in the culture of sixteenth-century Spain, Wright employs Wilde as his own Virgilian guide to world literature. We come to understand how reading can be an extremely sensual experience, producing a physical as well as a spiritual delight.


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An entirely new kind of biography, Built of Books explores the mind and personality of Oscar Wilde through his taste in books This intimate account of Oscar Wilde's life and writings is richer, livelier, and more personal than any book available about the brilliant writer, revealing a man who built himself out of books. His library was his reality, the source of so much tha An entirely new kind of biography, Built of Books explores the mind and personality of Oscar Wilde through his taste in books This intimate account of Oscar Wilde's life and writings is richer, livelier, and more personal than any book available about the brilliant writer, revealing a man who built himself out of books. His library was his reality, the source of so much that was vital to his life. A reader first, his readerly encounters, out of all of life's pursuits, are seen to be as significant as his most important relationships with friends, family, or lovers. Wilde's library, which Thomas Wright spent twenty years reading, provides the intellectual (and emotional) climate at the core of this deeply engaging portrait. One of the book's happiest surprises is the story of the author's adventure reading Wilde's library. Reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges's fictional hero who enters Cervantes's mind by saturating himself in the culture of sixteenth-century Spain, Wright employs Wilde as his own Virgilian guide to world literature. We come to understand how reading can be an extremely sensual experience, producing a physical as well as a spiritual delight.

30 review for Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde

  1. 4 out of 5

    Richard Derus

    How very much I loved the idea of this book! I can't imagine why no one ever thought to analyze the content of Wilde's character through the lens of his library before. I think it's brilliant! I like the author's delicate, clear sentences, leavened with a good dose of irony, in the best Wildean tradition. He is forced to rely on supposition and probability in many places in this book...how a volume came into the subject's library, what the effect of a particular book probably was on Wilde absent How very much I loved the idea of this book! I can't imagine why no one ever thought to analyze the content of Wilde's character through the lens of his library before. I think it's brilliant! I like the author's delicate, clear sentences, leavened with a good dose of irony, in the best Wildean tradition. He is forced to rely on supposition and probability in many places in this book...how a volume came into the subject's library, what the effect of a particular book probably was on Wilde absent concrete evidence...and that means I don't judge the book by the same standard I would an academic treatise. It's a very interesting popular biography of a very interesting popular figure told in a novel and instructive way. And having read it, I now dislike Oscar Wilde the man. He sounds like a perfect pill of a human being, contrary and crabby, sure of himself to the point of obnoxiousness in matters intellectual and aesthetic. He's one of those infuriating people who's Always Right, would never, ever admit to error or misunderstanding or ignorance. Yuck. Then came the hard labor years, which were *entirely* his own fault...the Marquess of Queensbury didn't tell a single lie about him, he knew it, and he arrogantly assumed his fame would protect him...and he seemed to get a little less cocksure. Then he died. It was a little like having the irrefutable evidence that Louis-Ferdinand Celine was a collaborator and an anti-Semite thrust upon me...I still like Death on the Installment Plan, but its luster is tarnished by the knowledge the author was a rotten, unworthy human being. Such is life, I suppose. Illusions lost later in life hurt no less than those lost early, it would seem. The Picture of Dorian Gray is just a wee bit besmirched for me now. Read at your own risk, Wilde fans, and those who aren't really should give this book wide berth as it will bore them comatose.

  2. 5 out of 5

    James

    Another book that was good enough to make me wish it had been a little better. I had a girlfriend, once, who thought I should spend less time reading and more time experiencing 'real' life. I didn't cut down on my reading, but, I suppose, I reluctantly agreed with her until a friend with whom I'd shared her disapproval asked me, "How is reading less 'real' than any other human experience?" Yeah, huh? So, when I heard about Built of Books I thought the conceit was an exceptionally promising appro Another book that was good enough to make me wish it had been a little better. I had a girlfriend, once, who thought I should spend less time reading and more time experiencing 'real' life. I didn't cut down on my reading, but, I suppose, I reluctantly agreed with her until a friend with whom I'd shared her disapproval asked me, "How is reading less 'real' than any other human experience?" Yeah, huh? So, when I heard about Built of Books I thought the conceit was an exceptionally promising approach to literary biography, which tends, given the nature of the writing process, to be a little short on incident. I love the idea of looking closely at the reading life of an extraordinary mind. Wright portrays each phase of Wilde's life by examining the texts which he was known or (in the absence of volumes with established provenance) might reasonably be supposed to have owned or read. Wright personally examined about fifty books that belonged to Wilde, and makes deductions about others based on references in Wilde's writing, published and unpublished. Wright, who reveals in his epilogue that he is a lifelong Wilde obsessive, writes prose that tends toward the purple. This would not be unfitting, given the subject, but, unfortunately, in Wright's case (in contrast to Wilde), the urge to excess is combined with a bit of a tin ear. "Where he had hoped," Wright ham-fistedly pronounces with regard to Wilde's fantastically ill-advised libel suit against his lover's irate father, "to be the author and hero of a clever comedy, Wilde found himself the protagonist of a tragedy that was Greek but far from gracious. Hubris had provoked the wrath of the Gods, and Doom entered the stage with running feet." My other complaint is that there is far too much speculation about what Wilde must have felt looking up from such-and-such a volume to gaze out such-and-such a window. On the plus side, I thoroughly enjoyed all the bibliomanic tech-talk about foxed pages and bumped corners, and the chapters about Wilde's incarceration, and, in particular, about the psychological cruelty of the isolative "Separate System" in penological vogue at the close of the 19th century, were profoundly moving. I hadn't realized before reading Built of Books how utterly Wilde's public humiliation and imprisonment destroyed him. This is poignantly demonstrated when he moves out of the Villa Giudice following a failed reconciliation with Bosie. Nothing could speak more eloquently of his defeat and despair than the fact that he left his library behind. He knew, as a reader and as a writer, that he was finished.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Sandi

    A light biblio-biographic of Wilde's book-filled life. It maps his influences from school days to death, and, in so doing, is a far more interesting biography than those that just focus on his homosexuality, or the injustice of his case. In my opinion--we are interested in the man because of what he wrote, and so a biography of his literary influences seem more apropos than other feature of his character. But that's not to say the Wright's narrative is devoid of these details or is so dry that he A light biblio-biographic of Wilde's book-filled life. It maps his influences from school days to death, and, in so doing, is a far more interesting biography than those that just focus on his homosexuality, or the injustice of his case. In my opinion--we are interested in the man because of what he wrote, and so a biography of his literary influences seem more apropos than other feature of his character. But that's not to say the Wright's narrative is devoid of these details or is so dry that he talks only about Baudelaire and such. Instead, he keeps his chapters short, provides flash summaries of the books he discusses, and talks as much about how Wilde read as what he read. Wright recreates Wilde's Tite Street study and lingers on a jam stain found on a book, and does an excellent job of conjuring up an impression of Wilde's character through his dedications, book-gifts, and prison requests. The author's afterward, a personal narrative of how he became enamored of Wilde's writing and resolved to read everything he read, is sentimental but feels very appropriate as a capstone. The appendixes that list Wilde's prison requests, and his list of books not to read is a great addition that makes the subject come alive. Highly recommended.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Rozonda

    The concept of this book attracted me from the beginning and I have to say, it has not disappointed me in any way. As a book lover and an Oscar Wilde admirer,I found the idea of a biography of Wilde which centered on books and how they defined his life simply wonderful. And it is indeed wonderfully executed: far from being pedantic, the pace is agile and at the same time the narration is deep, revealing so many aspects of Wilde through every book he read, reviewed, loved or hated; his beloved Gr The concept of this book attracted me from the beginning and I have to say, it has not disappointed me in any way. As a book lover and an Oscar Wilde admirer,I found the idea of a biography of Wilde which centered on books and how they defined his life simply wonderful. And it is indeed wonderfully executed: far from being pedantic, the pace is agile and at the same time the narration is deep, revealing so many aspects of Wilde through every book he read, reviewed, loved or hated; his beloved Greek poets, the Romantics, Pater, Ruskin, boring Victorian popular novels, the Bible, philosophers, French and German literature...I have felt deeply identified with Wilde's bibliophilia and its devotion to books,which were with him to the end and which were as essential to him as food and rest, and just when I was thinking that his devotion to them was only comparable to that of Borges', another idol of mine, the author surprised me by quoting at the end of this biography his marvellous poem "Mis Libros"(My Books): My books (which do not know that I exist) are as much a part of me as this countenance of gray temples and gray eyes I vainly seek in looking-glasses... For everyone who loves Wilde, or books, or both, this book is a discovery and a delight.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Cari

    An interesting, original approach to biography that wasn't nearly the heavy read I was expecting. Unfortunately, the author makes a lot of jumps from the material to what may have motivated Wilde, and it seems that this is more a biography of the author's romantic idea of Wilde, rather than the man himself. Nevertheless, an easy, entertaining read that's simultaneously intriguing for Wilde fans.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Bradley

    "Hermes was the Olympian god of orators, wits and poets, and the inventor the lyre. He was also the deity of liars of thieves. In most legends he is depicted as a cheeky trickster, who becomes embroiled in scrapes out of a love of mischief and extricates himself from them through marvelous eloquence, a prodigious gift for telling stories and a genius for playing the lyre. This is the god whose shadow was cast across Wilde's writing-desk."

  7. 5 out of 5

    Steven

    Interesting look at the books in Wilde's library and how they impacted his work, life, etc.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Ryu

    Excellent book! I absolutely loved it! I need more books like these about various authors. Books have influenced me in every step of my life and learning how books influenced my favourite author was absolutely wonderful too. The book is not dry at all and it has its own 'voice' so to speak, rather than just rattling off various historical facts. There were so many interesting facts about his life and the people around him I could scarcely stop taking notes. My favourite was the fact that Oscar W Excellent book! I absolutely loved it! I need more books like these about various authors. Books have influenced me in every step of my life and learning how books influenced my favourite author was absolutely wonderful too. The book is not dry at all and it has its own 'voice' so to speak, rather than just rattling off various historical facts. There were so many interesting facts about his life and the people around him I could scarcely stop taking notes. My favourite was the fact that Oscar Wilde used to EAT books. And perhaps the most bewildering one of all: he encouraged plagiarism! He viewed it as a way to improve upon literary works, even citing Shakespeare as a fellow plagiariser. I think in a way I recognise myself in Wilde. Of course I don't think I could ever match his level of literary genius, but surrounding himself with "Uranian" literature and "purple" friends is something I relate to as someone (semi) closeted. To see yourself in your favourite author is perhaps one of the best feelings in the world. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who would like to learn more about Wilde.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Brian

    I read this book after visiting a couple plays and short stories of Wilde in March for the Irish in me. I tried the new Sturgis biography Oscar for about 120 pages, but the dry history just didn't capture me. I tried just a couple chapters of Ellmann's biography, and I may return to it at a later date. Instead I decided on this book because I was more interested in the artist and those books that were an influence on his life. I found the focus on the literature with a little history/biography t I read this book after visiting a couple plays and short stories of Wilde in March for the Irish in me. I tried the new Sturgis biography Oscar for about 120 pages, but the dry history just didn't capture me. I tried just a couple chapters of Ellmann's biography, and I may return to it at a later date. Instead I decided on this book because I was more interested in the artist and those books that were an influence on his life. I found the focus on the literature with a little history/biography to spice the insights quite interesting. Is this a quality biography to truly know all of the events and relationships of Wilde's life? No. Is it filled with lots of suppositions that are stretches in regards to the information at hand? Yes. Still, it is far more interesting than most biographies that leave you without any feeling that the subject is a real person in all of their beauty and faults. Read Wilde and visit this book as a companion on the short literary career of an extraordinary bibliophile.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Charity

    I hope that if my life is ever deemed worthy of having a biography that the writer follows the same path as Thomas Wright and views my world through the books that filled my days. This book looks at the life of Oscar Wilde by delving into the books and stories that created his world. A unique way to frame a biography, the reader gets a really interesting view of Wilde by the titles he read and his notes about what was fit to read and what should be ignored or mocked. The book also crossed genres I hope that if my life is ever deemed worthy of having a biography that the writer follows the same path as Thomas Wright and views my world through the books that filled my days. This book looks at the life of Oscar Wilde by delving into the books and stories that created his world. A unique way to frame a biography, the reader gets a really interesting view of Wilde by the titles he read and his notes about what was fit to read and what should be ignored or mocked. The book also crossed genres, opening on a horror, dabbling in romance, and ending on a mystery. If you're a book lover you'll get a lot out of this title (mostly how little you've read in comparison to Wilde) including a list of new books you may want to read, both Wilde titles and the ones that influenced his writing.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Norman S

    I really enjoyed this insight into the personal life of Oscar Wilde and the method that the author used to construct it.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Albert

    Such a sad tale...

  13. 5 out of 5

    James

    I finished this last night. I’ve come across a number of books about the libraries of the famous, though not enough to suit me. They usually contain a catalogue of the books, along with additional biographical, historical, bibliographical, and analytic texts ranging from brief introductions to lengthy, detailed chapters. Sometimes you might in these books a discussion of the more important items in the collection, be they finely-bound editions, association copies, or books with annotations by the I finished this last night. I’ve come across a number of books about the libraries of the famous, though not enough to suit me. They usually contain a catalogue of the books, along with additional biographical, historical, bibliographical, and analytic texts ranging from brief introductions to lengthy, detailed chapters. Sometimes you might in these books a discussion of the more important items in the collection, be they finely-bound editions, association copies, or books with annotations by the owner. But there is almost always some attempt to analyze the effect the books in the collection had on the life, work, and thought of the owner. Naturally, such an analysis works best of the owner had been a writer, but I have seen at least three books of this sort dealing with the library and reading habits of Adolf Hitler. What Thomas Wright attempted to do in “Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde," is, just like the subtitle says, examine how Wilde’s reading shaped each stage of his life. It is a biography, but a biography of Wilde as a reader. There are chapters about how as a child his parents taught him Irish folklore, his study of Greek and Latin classics in school, his encounters with French literature, art criticism, popular fiction, homosexual literature, and erotica, his use of book-giving as a seduction tool, his habits of chewing on pages of books, cutting out passages with scissors, and indulging in plagiarism, and his reading during and after his prison term. Author Wright received a rather bare-bones state education lacking in the humanities, and when he discovered “The Picture of Dorian Gray" as a teenager, it opened his mind on many different fronts. He vowed not only to read everything Wilde had ever written, but also everything Wilde had ever read, in hopes that such a program would expand his mind all the more. When Wright went on to university at Oxford, he occupied a room that was graced with the library fireplace from Wilde’s former London home, a very tangible symbol of Wright’s goal. After a few years, though, Wright discovered he just wasn’t up to the task intellectually. He lacked Wilde’s ease with foreign languages, as well as Wilde’s sharp intelligence and first-rate education—the sort of education that can no longer be had in this day and age at any price. So, he modified his goal and decided to write a book about how Wilde had been influenced by his reading. Yet even this project proved problematic, as no complete catalogue of Wilde’s library exists. There is, of course, the “Tite Street Catalogue," a vague, incomplete, and error-filled catalogue that was hastily thrown together by auctioneers when, after Wilde’s arrest, his creditors demanded immediate payment of the money owed them, and all of the contents of his home were seized and auctioned. (…"Lot of French and other Novels, 2 parcels, 44 vols.," is a typically vague description from this source.) Wright also had to search later book dealers’s catalogues, as well as internal evidence in Wilde’s letters and writings for clues as to Wilde’s reading, but still those sources only offered incomplete information. Wright then compiled a speculative catalogue of Wilde’s lifetime reading and library holdings. Why he did not reproduce this catalogue in this book I cannot imagine. The book also has other problems. Throughout the text there are references, with page numbers included, to illustrations that apparently appeared in the original British edition of this work, “Oscar’s Books," but which don’t appear in the American edition. You would think that Wright would have noticed typos and stylistic infelicities in the British edition and corrected them for the American edition, but you would be wrong. You would think that a Wilde scholar with an Oxford education would know that “ancestor" and “descendant" are not synonyms, but you would be wrong. You would think that if Wright felt that a three-volume Victorian novel named “Alison" was worth discussing in his text, he could’ve devoted the fifteen seconds I did to Googling the name of its author, but you would be wrong. All that said, I’m afraid I’m coming across as more critical of Mr. Wright than I really wish to be. Though the end notes are a mostly tiresome, yawn-inducing slog suitable only for such obsessive-compulsive types as myself, the book overall is a highly entertaining and informative read that will delight both the novice and the scholar. (And there’s even a few unexplained private jokes in the text that true Wildeans will appreciate.) I just wish Mr. Wright had included his catalogue.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Julie Taylor

    Learning to know Oscar Wilde through the books he read and his notes in them and who he leant them to is pure genius. Admired this biography very much. It was a marvelous journey into an enviable and nimble mind, I was enchanted by his education and romantic, bard-like childhood. How it all lead to such a sad end, I cannot fathom. "Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught."

  15. 5 out of 5

    Bonnie

    The main point of this book (that I gathered) was that Wilde had a very unique approach to readership, that in turn heavily influenced both his view of the world and his authorial identity. For Wilde, one of the most important things about a book was the aesthetic appeal. The irony of Built of Books is that, in my opinion, it had almost none. The author was dealing with incredibly interesting content, but I found the presentation and organization to be incredibly boring. It didn't pick up for me The main point of this book (that I gathered) was that Wilde had a very unique approach to readership, that in turn heavily influenced both his view of the world and his authorial identity. For Wilde, one of the most important things about a book was the aesthetic appeal. The irony of Built of Books is that, in my opinion, it had almost none. The author was dealing with incredibly interesting content, but I found the presentation and organization to be incredibly boring. It didn't pick up for me until about the last quarter of the book. The idea for this book was really interesting, and I give it credit for that, but the execution fell short, and I think Wilde himself would have found much fault with this book. Now, admittedly, I read this book hoping for more biographical sensationalism, considering who the subject was, and, as the author notes, there are plenty of biographies of Oscar Wilde, and this book had a very different specific aim. One positive thing I can say about this book is that it made good use of some of WIlde's more amusing quotes. I think that, was I already very familiar with Wilde's biography, and clear on what the structure of this book was, I would have enjoyed it more. As it was, I was bored and a little confused through most of the book (although that may have been my own fault).

  16. 4 out of 5

    James Smith

    This is the sort of book that Wilde afficianados, like myself, will gobble up. But Wright's premise/conceit is of interest beyond that: he considers the way in which Wilde's work and persona were the product of his (voracious) reading from his boyhood, reminding us especially that Wilde was a first-rate classicist. Thus we'll fail to understand Wilde if we fail to appreciate his indebtedness to the Greeks (as well as Pater's revival of "Platonic" love). A really delightful read. And Wright inclu This is the sort of book that Wilde afficianados, like myself, will gobble up. But Wright's premise/conceit is of interest beyond that: he considers the way in which Wilde's work and persona were the product of his (voracious) reading from his boyhood, reminding us especially that Wilde was a first-rate classicist. Thus we'll fail to understand Wilde if we fail to appreciate his indebtedness to the Greeks (as well as Pater's revival of "Platonic" love). A really delightful read. And Wright includes a couple of fascinating appendices that include the books from Wilde's Tite Street library, auctioned off after his imprisonment, as well as the list of the books he requested while in prison. The latter alone is worth the price of the book. This biographical strategy--consider how a person and intellectual corpus is "built of books"--would also be a very productive way to understand the life and work of St. Augustine. Indeed, the Confessions already does this in some ways, tracking Augustine's reading during his long pilgrimage to faith.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Corey

    My sister recommended this book to me, and I'm glad she did. I didn't know much about Oscar Wilde outside of the usual stuff, and really wasn't all that interested in another biography. But to trace his life and his ups and downs through all the books he read? Yes please! It was a very good book and I'd highly recommend it!

  18. 4 out of 5

    Emmett

    Such a lovely, lovely book. It was enjoyable, while reading, to note common favourites shared with one of my favourite authors, and to discover new ones. This is a different take on biography, and I thoroughly appreciate the angle from which that author took to narrate Wilde's life and the influences which shaped him.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Janet

    The only book I’ve read by Wilde was The Portrait of Dorian Grey, but it was very interesting to hear Wright discuss the rest of Wilde’s work. Not being familiar with Victorian literature as a whole, I had never heard of most of the books Wilde read. I knew a couple Dickens, and some Matthew Arnold and that was about it. My next goal is to go find a copy of Wilde’s Salome.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Margaret Sankey

    By reconstructing the personal library of Oscar Wilde, tragically auctioned after his arrest, the author painstakingly traces all of his literary influences, from Irish folks tales, Greek poetry and trashy 19th century Gothic novels. It makes me wonder, as I post my own reading list on Facebook, what you can tell about people from what they read.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Kitty Moore

    This is hands-down one of the best biographies I have ever read. Meticulously researched but just imaginative enough to be very engaging. The biographer's feelings about Wilde resonate so strongly with my own that it was, at times, a surprisingly intense experience. Absolutely amazing.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Ellen

    As seen in the New York Times.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Kaethe Douglas

    There's nothing wrong with it, but the idea paled pretty quickly for me. Not a big reader of classics, I just didn't care too much about all of Wilde's classic textbooks.

  24. 4 out of 5

    David Rappoport

    An intellectual biography of Oscar Wilde that tells his story through the books that influenced him. One of the most engaging biographies I've read recently.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Melissa

    It improved toward the end but I just felt meh reading it. Jess, do you want it?

  26. 5 out of 5

    Stephanie Reynolds

    Can't wait to start this book! I learned about it through the Post's book review section and hope that it is as good as it sounds.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Aileen

    For Book Riot's 2016 Read Harder Challenge, task 6- read a biography. (6/24 completed)

  28. 4 out of 5

    The Literary Chick

    Novel idea, building a biography of a man through his books, set into the context of a biography. Heartbreaking when Oscar Wilde was broken into one Sebastian Melmouth.

  29. 5 out of 5

    ‏ㅤً

  30. 4 out of 5

    Grainne

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