Who’d be the editor of a volume of selected prose from a famous author? You get nothing but abuse for leaving out someone’s favorite poem or story, or for including something that’s not as strong as something else, or expressing conclusions about the author’s motivations or themes that vary from the accepted wisdom. It’s a mug’s game, but one that John Wyse Jackson has embraced nonetheless with what appears to be a genuine labor of love, his new book Best-Loved Oscar Wilde.
While I’ll try to refrain from quibbling with the selections, I will pay tribute to the editor for writing concise introductions and revealing a little about Wilde’s life as he takes us through the, mostly well-known, pieces. I did wonder if the pages were bound in the wrong order at one point, however: the excerpts that followed two introductions were so different to what appeared to be promised. But, perhaps that was down to the editor trying to give a sense of what the whole piece stood for, rather than what was actually conveyed in the short excerpt?
That really sums up the drawbacks of this genre of selected works: when reducing a play or a novel to a 3-4 page excerpt, it’s almost impossible to create a satisfying reading experience. If it took the author 100 pages or 90 minutes on stage to tell his story, you’re not going to convey anything meaningful in just three.
As an introduction to a favorite author or as a gift, these books have their uses. Best-Loved Oscar Wilde elevates itself from the pack through beautiful graphic design. The book is divided into sections with stylized images that draws on some of the classic Art Nouveau and Aubrey Beardsley illustrations of Wilde’s time. It’s a lovely looking book, and one that may spur readers unfamiliar with Wilde’s life to seek out a biography or his full-length work.