by Miguel de Cervantes
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As I prepared to discuss Don Quijote with my students, I found myself typing out page after page of questions and target answers. For awhile, such productivity is reassuring; it’s good to know that we’ve got plenty of material to cover. But when I started typing my twelfth page, I began to worry—and I was really worried when I finished on page nineteen.
There’s such a thing as having too much to talk about. You may have experienced that feeling when you met a close friend you hadn’t seen for a long time—it’s hard to know where to begin, and any amount of time seems too short. This is how I feel about Don Quijote.
Never mind the central problem—I have no idea how any human could conceive and create such a brilliant work—all the secondary issues are too much for me. Should I be cheering for the Don to snap out of his fit of madness? Modern-day critic Harold Bloom says absolutely not, but I feel otherwise. Is this the first novel ever written? Probably not, but it does depend on what you mean by “novel.” Are there historical reasons for the fact that two literary wunderkinds—Cervantes and Shakespeare—appear almost simultaneously? (Conspiracy theorists can solve this easily by claiming that Shakespeare and Cervantes were the same person—they did, after all, die on the exact same day.)
As you discuss Don Quijote, you’ll probably run into some of the same frustrations. You could teach this one book for a whole semester! It’s a well that never runs dry. But at the very least, as you teach your students or enjoy this book yourself, keep in mind that you are reading the work that invented the modern sense of humor. Two things should make this evident: (1) It’s easy to picture Homer Simpson getting into all the scrapes and behaving just the same as Sancho Panza; (2) Remember that before Don Quijote came along, people actually thought the Canterbury Tales were funny. That’s a sobering thought, isn’t it? We all—even Steve Martin—owe a great debt to Miguel Cervantes.
by Jeff Baldwin