Last night was my big Don Quixote talk. I published my planned talk yesterday, Tonight’s Don Quixote Talk. And so, I found myself at the local Whole Foods conference room with nine other book nuts to talk about arguably my favorite book (but undoubtedly the book I know most about). Because I hadn’t prepared an actual lecture, I printed out my “lecture notes,” along with the other articles I had referenced in it. I prepared ten copies, which was perfect, given that nine people showed up, and I needed one myself. This helped to open things up. I’ve long known that reading was a spiritual experience, but talking about it?
We spent two hours discussing Don Quixote, and it really was a spiritual experience. As I told them, although I have a faithful online audience, I can depend upon them to ignore pretty much everything I write about this great book. And I can hardly blame you all. Just the same, it was so nice to be with people who had read the first Don Quixote and who were genuinely interested in it.
The Best-Laid Plans of Book Talks…
The talk did not go as expected. In particular, we got caught up in the question of Don Quixote being the first modern novel. I had included this in my notes only because it is such a common statement that I figured I needed to touch on it. Indeed, my main point about it was, “Unless you are an academic, I think this is a terrible reason for reading it.” But it really did become an issue that we had a hard time getting past.
It was a very edifying, spiritual experience for me, because I’ve never thought about the question much. The main reason that Don Quixote is “modern” is because it makes the human character the most important element. For the first time in literature, ordinary humans become the subject of our stories. And they turn out to be far more interesting than gods and heroes and all the rest. And Cervantes bursts out of the gate with two of the most splendid misfits to ever decorate a sheet of paper.
Don Quixote Begins
But the people in this readers’ group were not inclined to just accept simple answers. For one thing, they wanted to know if it really was all that sudden. And I had to admit that it wasn’t. I knew, for example, that the theater of the few generations before Cervantes had been undergoing a transformation. Plays had always been moral lessons with characters simply representations of concepts. It was only during the middle of the 16th century that this began to change. And this is what led to the vibrant theater around the turn of the early 17th century in England, Spain, and elsewhere.
But a play is limited in what it can do with character. And Cervantes, having wanted to be a playwright from his earliest years, knew the theater well. So there is a special confluence: the trends in theater and Cervantes’ generally poor skills in writing for it. What a fabulous and original way of looking at the creation of Don Quixote.
We also talked about literature after Cervantes. We now know that Don Quixote was extremely important to the evolution of the novel. But how did that happen? It wasn’t the case that everyone suddenly started writing like Cervantes. We started talking about books that we know, but the truth is that among this very well-read group, few knew much of the literature of the 17th and 18th century. The only book I could think of was The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling — almost a century and a half later. Someone else mentioned Daniel Defoe. But it still makes me very interested to know just what was happening for that first century after Don Quixote became a worldwide sensation.
A Spiritual Experience
It’s such a wonderful thing to discuss arcane subjects with other people who will engage in them. And the diversity was stunning. Some people were really grappling with the questions — hoping that I had the answers. Others were more skeptical of some of my more glib remarks. By the end of this two hours of discussion, I had two somewhat paradoxical thoughts. The first was that I understand Don Quixote at a fairly deep level. The second was that there are whole new ways of thinking about the novels that people who have only just read it reveal. It was an extremely edifying experience for me.
And from a social standpoint it was so hopeful. Here was a group of ten people who braved the cold and the rain to meet up to discuss a couple of books written over 400 years ago. It was like going to church — having a spiritual experience. Yes, the world is filled with problems and there are evil people who seem determined to make things worse just to aggrandize their already overfull egos and lifestyles. But we can let them live their hollow lives. We readers are the monks of our civilization — pursuing truth and beauty simply because it is there to be pursued. I’m so grateful to these people. I think there is hope for humanity after all.