The 1980 Pulitzer Prize winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces is not just a litmus test for finding friends (if you don’t like this book, then we will never be bosom buddies). It’s also a cautionary tale of a seriously bad reader.
John Kennedy Toole’s novel is so funny that most people just enjoy the ride, not thinking too deeply about the experience of the story. In January 2021, when Tom Bissell reconsidered the book in our time, he demonstrated that it is not merely what you read that matters but how you read. While Bissell was clever enough to celebrate the novel’s fortieth anniversary, he missed the point of the book. Although he lamented the vices of the book’s protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly, Bissell still views him as a “hero.”
In truth, Reilly is no more a hero than Dostoevsky’s Underground Man. The two are notoriously bad readers of good literature who exercise their freedom to the detriment of other people’s. Their stories are not meant to be exemplary. Instead, they warn us against our penchant for misreading good books.