the guardian Fri 25 September 2009
Wright tells us he has spent 20 years on a quest to "inspect every book Wilde is known to have read". This makes him sound like a dotty scholar from the fiction of James or Nabokov, and his title suggests a glorified catalogue liable to appeal only to other obsessives. Yet Oscar's Books is an enthralling "biography of Wilde the reader" that is also an original biography of Wilde the man (who saw his protean identity as constructed from literature) and the writer (who believed old books, not life, should inspire new ones). And the monomaniacal focus on reading clears away the narrative clutter of the conventional biog. From Wilde's Dublin childhood with bibliophile parents, via Oxford, London and Reading jail to his death "surrounded by books in a cheap Parisian hotel", Wright shows that encounters with works by writers such as Plato or Pater were just as formative as meeting mentors or lovers; and points to the many ways his hero used books, as sources, drugs, conversational fuel, seduction tools and a means of entry into England's elite.