Tuesday, May 10, 2005

You Get So Caught Up

I'm planning on doing several posts about part one of Don Quixote. DQ is a big book and part one is about half of it. Today will be a sort of "first impressions" rambling before I try to delve into the nitty gritty. I am reading the Edith Grossman translation and wow, do I love it. It is incredibly easy to read but so well done that it doesn't lose the flavor. I appreciate the occasional footnote to explain the meaning of a joke or why a certain word or phrase was chosen instead of another or a historical reference. By the sound of it you'd think there were many notes, but that is not the case. The translation is done so well that I rarely think about it even being translated, something which I think is very important. One of the aspects that I find so wonderful about DQ is the power that books are given. It is because of books that Don Quixote has gone mad (there is the question about whether or not he truly is mad but I will save that for another post). No one today would blame a book for someone's crazy behavior. It is more likely that video games or movies will get that blame now. But back in DQ's time, books had power. Even the characters in the books could influence the world. Early on when the priest is at DQ's house going through his library and burning the books on chivalry the housekeeper runs out and brings back a basin of holy water and a hyssop and tells the priest, "'Take this, Senor Licentiate, and sprinkle this room, so that no enchanter, of the many books, can put a spell on us as punishment for wanting to drive them off the face of the earth.'" The priest laughs at her "simplemindedness," and I laughed too. But I laughed because it reminded me that when I was a kid I used to imagine the characters in my books coming to life and sometimes even now after a particularly good book I find myself wondering what the characters are up to. Throughout part one there are references to books of chivalry and how much pleasure people get from them. In chapter 32 there is a whole conversation about why books and reading are so great. Says the innkeeper:

"...the truth is, to my mind, there's no better reading in the world; I have two or three of them [books of chivalry], along with some other papers, and they really have put life into me, and not only me but other people too. Because during the harvest, many of the harvesters gather here during their time off, and there's always a few who know how to read, and one of them takes down one of those books, and more than thirty of us sit around him and listen to him read with so much pleasure that it saves us a thousand gray hairs; at least as far as I'm concerned, I can tell you that when I hear about those furious, terrible blows struck by the knights, it makes me want to do the same, and I'd be happy to keep hearing about them for days and nights on end." "The same goes for me," said the innkeeper's wife, "because I never have any peace in my house except when you're listening to somebody read; you get so caught up that you forget about arguing with me."
The whole scene reminds me of the Lectors the cigar factory workers used to hire to read to them while they worked. In chapter 47 there is even a long discourse critiquing fiction and books of chivalry in particular. It is part artistic declaration part self-mocking. But it is Don Quixote who is the center of the story, the evidence of the power of books. He has left home to become a knight errant because of the books of chivalry that he reads as true history. And I can't blame DQ for wanting to leave his boring life for a life of adventuring. He holds to the truth of his books even to the end when he, in chapter 49, is locked up in a cage by the priest and told he is enchanted. But DQ is not so enchanted that he doesn't have a thing or two to say to the priest and the canon:
"Your grace also said that these books have done me a good deal of harm, for they turned my wits and put me in a cage, and it would be better for me to alter and change my reading and devote myself to books that are truer and more pleasant and more instructive." "That is true," said the canon. "Well, then," replied Don Quixote, "it is my opinion that the one who is deranged and enchanted is your grace, for you have uttered so many blasphemies against something so widely accepted in the world as true that whoever denies it, as your grace had done, deserves the same punishment that your grace says you give to books when you read them and they anger you."
DQ goes on to say later that books "improve the spirits" and "drive away melancholy," and that ever since he became a knight errant he has been "valiant, well-mannered, liberal, polite, generous, courteous, bold, gentle, patient, [and] long-suffering." How can books be bad if they have inspired such behavior? It's good to be reminded now and then about just how powerful and transforming books can be.