NOTE: I read the Tom Lathrop English translation of this book. The translation is very readable, and full of interesting footnotes to give context. Quotes in this post come from the Ormsby translation, because I don’t have my edition handy.
I’ll start this post by talking about a different book—The Odyssey.
I was assigned to read this book in a class in middle school and one in high school, and never finished it either time. Every other reading assignment in high school I completed, but not The Odyssey. Part of it was that I was in eighth and ninth grade when it was assigned. Another part was that the book is terrible if read just as a book. The characters are flat, the story is convoluted and repeatedly drags itself out in cheap, illogical ways, and though the writing can be striking at times, it’s translated from a poem written in ancient Greek over two thousand years ago, so I imagine a lot of the poetry is lost. It’s only interesting as it relates to all of western literature following it, which a ninth grader, even one who’s a precocious writer, has no grasp of.
Don Quixote is not as inaccessible as The Odyssey, but it is still a flawed work. The most important thing it contains which The Odyssey doesn’t is relatable characters. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are realistic, and even have distinct voices. While some of the other characters blur together, and all speak in the same formal style as don Quixote, Sancho Panza and don Quixote are enough to engage a reader on a basic level, with no need for historical context. In addition to this, Don Quixote has the advantage of humor, something that transcends the dry, formal writing style and meandering plot.
If I read this book as just a book, I would say that I enjoyed the episodic style except where the plot completely derailed into repetitive romance stories that had nothing to do with the main characters, and that the book was bloated, but contained an interesting through-line. I’d criticize the almost complete lack of visual descriptions. I would say I adored the main two characters but that there were many secondary characters who seemed redundant, and could’ve been merged into one character. I would say that the handling of Sancho’s character arc was smooth and natural, while don Quixote’s was a bit more jerky and sudden. I’d critique the ending as fitting though too abrupt. Overall I’d like the book, though I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who wasn’t a big reader.
But I didn’t do that. I read the book knowing it is considered the first modern novel, knowing that everything I’ve read and written has been influenced by this book. I read it knowing that Cervantes wrote the book at the height of the Spanish Empire, and the height of its excess. I read it knowing that it was parody of chivalric romances, the popular genre of the day. I read it knowing it was blazing it’s own path through uncharted literary territory. With that in mind, I loved the book.