Why We Read ‘Don Quixote’

From The Paris Review:

Quixote_wiley_BLOG2 What does it mean to be “quixotic” today? Are street-corner preachers quixotic? Is Bono? What about film directors who dementedly pursue the unlikely grail of adapting a difficult book for the screen? The word endures because its source endures. Don Quixote de la Mancha is the first modern novel, and two weeks ago I found myself on the Upper East Side, at the Queen Sofía Spanish Institute, tracing the word part of the way toward its origin. In the inevitable absence of Miguel de Cervantes, it was left to the book’s most recent English translator, Edith Grossman, the publisher, Andrew Hoyem, and the artist, William T. Wiley to explain the book’s riverine significance. The Quixote Delta has proved fertile ground for world literature, branching off into numerous tributaries, irrigating any number of national traditions and, finally, trickling down into the work of some of the most singular figures in world literature, from Nabokov to Borges, Fielding to Garcia Marquez.

But doesn’t quixotic threaten to swamp Quixote? Aren’t these words, which get coined in tribute to an author or a book, almost always treacherous? Can all the possibilities and implications of a character, or even—more ambitiously—a life’s work, be contained within the semantic boundaries of just one word? We think of Orwellian as adjectival shorthand for a state apparatus of terror and surveillance, but what if we also took it to mean window-pane clarity of expression or even a marked aversion to the poetry of Stephen Spender? In the same way, Don Quixote is not only a cautionary tale about the perils of idealism: among other things, it is also the first great book about books, a visionary parable about the responsibilities of reading and writing fiction that arrived early on in the age of printing. The river feeds into an ocean.

More here.

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