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A Closer Look At A Confederacy Of Dunces

by Josh Hanagarne on December 12, 2012

in Books

Folks, or folk, if by any chance there’s only one of you left, I’m finally ready to start writing about A Confederacy of Dunces.  It has been my favorite book for the last 10 years, and I doubt that will ever change.  Occasionally Blood Meridian has encroached on the pedestal, but won’t ever truly overtake Confederacy.  

butterfly-typewriter-maclauchlinNo book has ever given me more joy, and it’s time for to try and give it its due.

I’m going to spend the next couple of weeks looking at John Kennedy Toole’s comic masterpiece.  For source material I’ll be citing largely from Cory MacLauchlin’s excellent Butterfly In The Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces.  If you have any interest in Toole’s story, or the origins of the book, you’ll love the biography.

Today I’m just going to tell you how I discovered the book.  

I was in my early twenties and was at a low point with my health.  I couldn’t get outside much, so I read an obscene amount of books that year.  I loved it when friends would refer to me and say things like “Yeah, he’s read everything.”  I was stupid enough to nod wisely and even came to believe it after a while.

Then I went into a used bookstore in Salt Lake City, during one of the many weekend trips I made to visit friends.  The owner was a kind old man who quickly made me aware of just how little I had read.  I was doing okay for a dabbling, pseudo-intellectual 21 year old, but he had been reading as much or more than me, for about 60 years.  He was a treasure who cared about books more than anyone I knew, and I include myself in that.

Sadly, the store didn’t get as much business as it should have, so I often had the owner to myself for conversations that might last two hours.  He never acted annoyed, or looked at his watch, and I never got the impression that he was humoring me.  I’m probably flattering myself, but I always liked to think that he saw in me a kindred spirit, an ally.

One day, while quizzing me about my reading–we were talking about humor that day–he said, “What do you think about A Confederacy of Dunces?”  He segued into this after I mentioned Riotous Assembly by Tom Sharpe and Dead Souls by Gogol.

I confessed that I’d never heard of Dunces.  He put a copy in my hands and said, “Go read it now, no more talking today.”  And then he wouldn’t let me pay for it.  He changed my life that day.  I don’t say that lightly, in the way that most people say “This book changed my life” and then proceed not to change.

When I say it changed me, here’s what I mean:

  • I’ve read it once or twice each year since then
  • I wouldn’t realize this for a long time, but much of my own sense of humor, in writing at least, was heavily influenced by his manic New Orleans picaresque
  • It made me want to get more serious about writing
  • No book has ever made me laugh so hard, so often.  No matter how bad I felt, I knew I could open to any page, at any hour, and find myself smiling minutes later.  Priceless.

I forced this book on anyone who would listen.  I still do.  Someone gave it to me for free.  I bet I’ve bought 20 copies that I’ve thrust into people’s hands, hoping they’ll have a similar experience to mine.

Some people absolutely hate it.  Some of my most well-read, critical friends think it is one of the worst books of all time.  We’ve all agreed to quit arguing.  We’re simply not going to reach each other.

Some people, like me, love it more than anything and enjoy spending time with people who understand references to Up From Sloth and the Crusade For Moorish Dignity.

One friend hated it the first time around, then loved it nine years later on attempt number two.  I’m still not sure I believe him.

Some people just say, “I don’t get it.”

I don’t know if I “get it” either, but I can’t stop reading it.  This book has improved my life in many ways, and I suspect it’s had a deeper impact on me than I’m even aware of.

In the next couple of weeks, I’m going to take a closer look at the book itself, as well as the history of its author. I hope you’ll stick around, and if you’ve read it, please add to the discussion. I’m looking forward to it.

 

 

 

{ 18 comments }

Spencer December 12, 2012 at 1:50 pm

If your “friend” is anyone I know, then I am pretty sure he is dead serious. I think it is possible to hate it the first time and love it the next. It depends where you are as a reader. I have had the reverse experience too: read something and loved it, and then tried it again, years later, and thought “now what was that all about? That was TERRIBLE!”

I think it’s about maturity and reading with an open mind. Like you, I was an avid reader in my early 20s. I still am, maybe more avid than ever. But back then I was also an intensely arrogant reader. If I didn’t “get” something, then that meant it was crap. Period. Because I was a genius, and “got” everything worth “getting.”

I admit, with full humility, that I was wrong on my first take. It is not yet my absolute favorite book, but I do love it. And it is hilarious. Perhaps the funniest book I have ever read. I look forward to this discussion, and can’t get my hands on a copy of the biography fast enough.

Josh Hanagarne December 12, 2012 at 1:58 pm

You really need to read The Good Soldier Svejk. We need a new book to argue about.

Spencer December 12, 2012 at 2:16 pm

Is this another you love but think I’ll hate? It’s on!

Josh Hanagarne December 12, 2012 at 2:25 pm

No, I think you’ll love it.

Spencer December 12, 2012 at 4:35 pm

Then I am IN.

Casey B December 12, 2012 at 2:39 pm

This post is exactly why I like your review things you like strategy. You don’t waste time talking about something that didn’t strike you. I try to have something to say then write. It’s easier to have more to say about something you love.

Curtis S December 12, 2012 at 3:51 pm

I read it a few years ago on your recommendation and really enjoyed it. I still have visions of Ignatius eating all the product that he is supposed to be selling whenever I see a street vendor. I look forward to your discussion on it.

Josh Hanagarne December 12, 2012 at 4:05 pm

Hey, when are you coming over again?

Curtis S December 12, 2012 at 4:48 pm

Probably sometime in January, I will let you know.

Spencer December 12, 2012 at 5:36 pm

P.S. Does the used book store still exist? If so, I want to see it sometime. There was a Salt Lake City bookstore in The Man Who Loved Books Too Much that sounded very intriguing. Could it be the same one?

Josh Hanagarne December 12, 2012 at 6:41 pm

No, it doesn’t. It was called Experienced Books. Their website is still up. I actually called the number tonight, hoping, but it’s been disconnected.

Spencer December 13, 2012 at 9:36 am

Bummer.

Josh Hanagarne December 13, 2012 at 10:11 am

Ask Deli Boy about it. I ran into her there once.

Misty December 13, 2012 at 7:49 am

I’ve ordered this book through paperbackswap.com, so I’ll soon find out what all the fuss is about!

P December 13, 2012 at 8:54 am

You’ve motivated me to try again – i also tried several time to read this book – probably 10 yrs ago or so – it sits at home on the shelf smirking at me – so perhaps its time to give it a try again. p

Josh Hanagarne December 13, 2012 at 9:22 am

Don’t torture yourself! If you hate it this time as well, put it down and go in peace!

Stephen Baum January 4, 2013 at 1:05 pm

I’m reading it currently. An acquaintance at work cited it as the best book he’d ever read. I’m enjoying it immensely so far.

Josh Hanagarne January 4, 2013 at 2:07 pm

Glad to hear it!

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