On this day in 1605, El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha was published. Notice that it is not Quijote, as Wikipedia claims. That is the modern Spanish spelling of the title character’s name; we in America still spell it as Cervantes himself spelled it, even though it creates many problems like the word “quixotic.”
This, of course, was the first part of the book. We don’t know exactly when the second part was published, except that it was in late 1615. Over time, I’ve come to be less enthusiastic about Part 1. It is still a great novel. And the reason it is great — at least in a historical context — is that Cervantes tells what seems to be an episodic story. Various things happen to our heroes. But then he ties them all together at the end. I don’t think anyone had ever done that before and that is why Don Quixote is called the first modern novel. Certainly it is true that people had been writing long narratives for many years before this book.
The reason people still read Don Quixote has little to do with its historical significance, however. They read it for the same reason they read it at the time: it’s a funny book. But when it came time to write a sequel, Cervantes’ clever mind took it one more step into absurdity. Since the conceit of the first book was that it was just a translation of an Arabic book by Cide Hamete Benengeli, it was a true story. And by that time, Don Quixote himself was very famous because of Cervantes’ translation. It only made sense to a mind as creative as Cervantes’ that further adventures of the unlikely knight errant would be in that world.
Regardless, for the umpteenth time, you really should read the book. In order to understand literature, you need to read Don Quixote. And in a sense, to understand literature, you only need to read Don Quixote. It really does have it all. I can’t say that literature has moved past it. Earlier novels like the five that make up The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel are still fun to read, but they are distinctly from an earlier time. But Don Quixote is not. It could be published today and I think it would still find a sizable audience.