Reading Journal

What I'm reading

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes

Someone said that everyone should read Don Quixote three times, once when young, once in middle age and once when old. I read it in my teenage years and thought it was okay but it didn't impress me like other classics did. Now, as a middle aged person, I read it again and loved it. If I read it again 30 years from now, I wonder what I'll think?

This time I read the Samuel Putnam translation. It was excellent in every way and only costs $1.99 on Kindle. It's well worth the price considering some of the awful and archaic translations available for free.

Don Quixote reminds me of one of my other favorite characters, Pickwick from Pickwick Papers. They're both older gentleman roaming around the county having miscellaneous adventures and encounters. Both are kind, noble, and somehow more innocent than everyone around them.

The great thing about Don Quixote is that it also has Sancho Panza, his down-to-earth squire and friend.

Cervantes wrote it in two parts, separated by 10 years. In the second part, the people Quixote and Sancho meet have read the first part! They're famous in a way, though they're not aware everyone is laughing at them.

Beyond the funny parts, there are interesting perspectives on sanity, reality, and morality.

Fore example, when the bachelor Quixote takes up knight-errantry, he decides he needs a lady love. Lacking anything in that department, his mind transforms a certain peasant girl he hardly knows into the beauteous lady Dulcinea. Although he's always declaring his love for her, part of him questions her reality. In the end though, it's more important to him that he show nobility of spirit, than that he be sane.

“That,” replied Don Quixote, “is a long story. God knows whether or not there is a Dulcinea in this world or if she is a fanciful creation. This is not one of those cases where you can prove a thing conclusively. I have not begotten or given birth to my lady, although I contemplate her as she needs must be.

I found these two passages especially touching, one in which Quixote talks about his friendship with Sancho and vice versa.

Don Quixote about Sancho Panza:
 “On the other hand, I would have your Highnesses know that Sancho Panza is one of the drollest squires that ever served a knight-errant. He is so sharp in his simple-mindedness that one may derive no little amusement from trying to determine whether he is in reality simple or sharp-witted. He has in him a certain malicious streak that seems to indicate he is a rogue, and from his blundering you would take him for a dunce. He doubts everything and believes everything, and just as I think he is about to tumble headlong, owing to some stupidity, he will come up with some witticism or other that sends him skyward in my estimation. The short of the matter is, I would not exchange him for another squire even though they threw in a city to boot."

Sancho Panza having a conversation with a Duchess about Don Quixote (the Duchess will give him an island to govern, as a joke):

As a result of what the worthy Sancho has told me,” she said, “there arises a question in my mind, a certain whispering in my ear which says: if Don Quixote is crazy, weak-minded, crackbrained, and Sancho his squire knows it and still continues to serve him and to cling to the empty promises his master has made him, he must undoubtedly be the more foolish and the more insane of the two; and if this is the case, my lady the Duchess, as I am sure it is, you are bound to be reproached for having given him an island to govern; for if he cannot govern himself, how can he govern others?” 
“By God, lady,” said Sancho, “you’ve spoken straight to the point; but go ahead, your Highness, and say whatever you like, as plain as you like, for I know it to be the truth. I know that if I had good sense I’d have left my master long ago. But this is my luck, my misfortune, and I can’t help following him. We’re from the same village, I’ve eaten his bread, I like him very much, he’s generous to me, he gave me his asscolts, and, above all, I’m loyal; and so it’s impossible for anything to separate us except the pick and spade. And if your Highness doesn’t want to give me that island that you promised me, well, I didn’t have it when God made me, and it may be that your not giving it to me will be all the better for my conscience.

I started the book by laughing at Quixote and Sancho, and ended it by admiring them. I can't think of many books that develop characters like that. As a Cervantes scholar said in the notes, "Don Quixote’s death is as touching and saddening as that of a person who has really existed and for whom we have felt a profound affection. ‘What a worthy madman,’ the reader exclaims to himself, ‘in this rascally world of ours where there are so many wicked ones of sound mind!’"


  • At 1:18 PM, Anonymous Ward Williams said…

    Hi Scott - Two things: I also loved Don Quixote! I listened to the Edith Grossman translation, read by George Guidall (and amazing reader) on CD a couple years back.

    Secondly, I miss your Library Gadget service! If you're not doing it anymore (I notice it stopped about a year or so ago, and that the website is unavailable), would you mind sending me the code so that I could try to put a similar service together? I know some Python, and it'd be a fun side project for me to try to get it working (and useful, since I pay a moderate amount in Seattle Public Library fines each year :).)



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