The Curse of a Good First Impression

At some point in college, I picked up a copy of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces and thought it was the funniest book I’d ever read.  The bumbling, blustering Ignatius Reilly was such an absurdly comic figure that it was very easy to overlook or ignore the more tragic aspects of the book.  I remember reading through pages and pages in a perpetual state of giddiness punctuated quite frequently by bursts of hysterical laughter.

A year or so ago, having exhausted my personal collection of reading material, I borrowed a copy of A Confederacy of Dunces from a friend.  It was exam time and I needed something to occupy myself  for the ten or so hours I would spend in the classroom monitoring my students.  It seemed like a perfect choice. I was a bit worried that I might let out an inappropriate guffaw, but I figured I could probably muffle my laughter so that it wouldn’t be a distraction to the students.

A few hours into exams, I found myself more interested in staring out the window.  The story was still funny, the dialogue still witty, the characters still quirky.  However, Ignatius Reilly’s misadventures just didn’t seem so interesting the second time around.

There is a real danger in rereading a book that seemed so wonderful the first time.  There’s no doubt that A Confederacy of Dunces is a brilliant book – one of the seminal works of modern American comedic writing.  Yet, my expectations proved impossible to meet.  Those expectations – that it would be as gut-wrenchingly funny as I remembered it – were, perhaps, misguided.  Second readings enable the reader to dig deeper into the text, allowing them to tease out the more subtle nuances hidden within the story and in the language itself.  I’ll admit that’s not what I was looking for;  I simply wanted to be entertained and I was sorely disappointed.

As I’m now contemplating rereading of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I’m curious about other readers’ experiences in this regard.  What books, upon rereading, just couldn’t stand up to the expectations set by the first reading?

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7 comments

  1. Oh man. The Catcher in the Rye just died for me the second time around, which is so tragic. I hadn’t read it since high school, during which time it DEFINED me I just LOVED it give me a Beatle I’ll do ANYTHING for Holden. Etc. Like most teenagers. But, upon second reading, I still appreciate it- but I don’t fall down at it’s altar, so to speak. It’s meh. It’s hard to get into a book when you know the main character could be highly improved by a good spanking from his mother.

    deadwhiteguyslit.blogspot.com

    1. Thanks for the comments Amanda. I’ll be honest – Catcher in the Rye didn’t do it for me the first time around, so I’m not sure there will ever be a second. I know, I know, its a defining book of American literary culture. But I found it to be a huge bore. I’m risking alienation from the reading community saying this, but I would probably rate it as one of the most over-hyped, disappointing, and annoying books I’ve ever read. C’mon, Holden, just stop it with the whining already, ya big phony! I completely agree with your opinion that what that brat needed was a good spanking. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. To many books to mention, when I was younger had pretensions of being an intellectual, so would read anything vaguely considered highbrow. Nowadays don’t have the patience, try A theory of semiotics (Umberto Eco).Turn this idea around, what about the books that you keep going back to.The ones that you turn the cover & its a homecoming.

    1. There are quite a few books I’ve read over and over and still love – Stephen King’s The Stand and It immediately come to mind. Not the most literary of selections, I know, but books that suck me through their 1000+ pages in a few days by the sheer power of their storytelling.

  3. Ender’s Game didn’t really disappoint me on my second reading, but it definitely didn’t hit me like it did the first time around. I didn’t adore the book when I first read it, but then again I thought I was going to hate it after seeing the cover, so the fact that I was entertained was a pleasant surprise and I expected that same surprise entertainment when I re-read it.

    I think with certain books once you already know what’s going to happen and that element of surprise is gone the books lose something in subsequent readings. Then again books that seem like they just rely on that surprise keep me entertained in reading after reading. Misery comes to mind, probably because you mentioned 2 other King works.

    1. I haven’t read Ender’s Game. I’ll have to look into that. The Kings books popped into my mind simply because they’re such good stories and that’s what keeps me going back. Sure, I know everything that’s going to happen, but it really doesn’t matter much.

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