I first encountered Ignatius J. Reilly in 1980. I had just begun my first professional job; I was a library cataloger at the American University in Washington, DC. My wife was, and still is, a voracious reader of fiction, but in my mind I was an academic and I had no time to read fiction; I had more substantive things to read.
As I learned my job, I realized that statistics mattered, and that fiction was generally easy to catalog. So, I could pad my statistics by cataloging books that I would not read. And because they didn’t interest me, I moved through them even faster. But then it happened.
On what I picture as a crisp fall day, I picked up a piece of new fiction, A Confederacy of Dunces, but it was not like any other piece of fiction. For one, it was published by the Louisiana State University Press and back then, academic presses wouldn’t touch fiction. And secondly, it was a novel by a dead author about a city I didn’t particularly care for. The figure on the dust jacket resembled my brother and the descriptions of both the author and book pulled me in. I had the book rushed through processing and I took it home. My wife was amazed.
I devoured it. I laughed out loud. The characters were wonderfully wacky. The dialog was realistic and crazy, at the same time. I recommended it to everyone I knew.
It sounds trite, but it changed my life as a reader. For the next few years, I made up for lost time. I read fiction non-stop, from Cooper and Melville to contemporary authors and just about everything in between. Since then, work and family have tempered my mania and I have found a happy balance between fiction and non-fiction.
Ignatius changed me and I didn’t forget it, but I never went back to it; that is, until 1993. In that year, the Society of American Archivists held its annual conference in New Orleans and I signed up for a pre-conference workshop on historic photo preservation. I was going back to a city that I had mixed feelings about — for an entire week.
When I boarded my flight, I had A Confederacy of Dunces in hand. Before I got to Pittsburgh, I was far into the novel. During my layover in Pittsburgh, I picked at my lunch while I continued to read. By the time I got to Louis Armstrong airport, I had finished it and it was as satisfying as the first time.
I stayed in an old, newly-renovated hotel a block off Bourbon Street. My room had 12 foot ceilings and a balcony that overlooked a courtyard replete with working fountain, banana trees, and cascades of flowers. After Ignatius, I saw the city through different eyes. I heard the music in the language; tasted the seasonings in the food anew; and recognized the buildings and doorways and ironwork and gardens that the fictional Ignatius passed, pushing his cart down the centuries old streets.
I’ve returned to New Orleans three times since then (and am preparing for a fourth) and each time I try to re-read John Kennedy Toole’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel. It is not a novel that any chamber of commerce would welcome, but it changed my reading habits and encouraged me to look at a troubled, complicated city in a whole new light. The word “passion” is often over-used, but it is the word that best summarizes what it has given me.