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?