Wednesday, January 27, 2010

83 Pages in 10 Years - Procrastination and Absolution

I am on page 83 of a 589 page book that I began reading ten years ago. For years, I've dragged this book around with me, telling myself that one of these days, I would finish it. Recently, I resolved to finish it, once and for all, and I am making slow but steady progress.

The book is Oscar Wilde, a meticulously detailed biography written by Richard Ellmann. I wrote my senior thesis in English Literature on three of Wilde's plays. Although I can no longer remember which ones, I do recall my advisor telling me to read a biography of Wilde. I began reading and then promptly abandoned my efforts. This isn't unlike me. Reading the biography wasn't crucial to completing my project; it just would have been helpful in developing a more nuanced understanding of the work I was trying to analyze. I always seem to look for the easy way out.

This is likely why I've been lugging this brick of a book around with me for the past ten years. Because while I always seem to look for the easy way out, I feel guilty when I actually take it, and reading this biography is a way to absolve myself of that guilt. Now that I am actually reading it, however, I see things a bit differently. This book is hard. It is a highly detailed account of Wilde's life, but also an extremely thorough analysis of both his work and the influences shaping that work. It is a book written by an academic for a scholarly audience, and it assumes a level of familiarity with the intellectual environment of Wilde's time. In college, trying to slog through this book, I thought I just wasn't disciplined enough when I fell asleep reading it, bored because I couldn't understand enough to get interested. Now, ten years and one PhD later, I see that it's just a hard book. The only thing not finishing this book would say about me is that I am not a professional scholar of Oscar Wilde's work.

Ironically enough, now that I've given myself permission to walk away from this book, I actually want to finish it. Even though I am not particularly riveted by reading descriptions of what Wilde ate for breakfast on April 19 of his first year at Trinity College or how he decorated his room at Oxford, I find his story fascinating. Even more than the enjoyment I've had reading this book, I've gained the realization that I don't have to be perfect, and that not all of my failures (namely, the failure to read this book when I was supposed to) are condemnations of me as a person. I may have taken the easy way out not reading the biography, but the thesis still got written. And if my memory serves, I even got an A.

So whatever your Oscar Wilde biography is, embrace it or let it go, but stop letting it drag you down.


  1. So, I shouldn't feel like a failure when I pass out 20 pages into Ulysses?

    Also, how DID he decorate his room at Oxford? Pop quiz!

  2. He bought a really ornate tea set on credit, and 6 wine glasses. He hosted parties every Sunday night and was a lush.