Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Simple Suggestion #131... Read some classic literature

Here's my crinkled-covered, ancient copy of Don Quixote. I've been working on reading it for more years than I can determine. For a long while, anyway. The reason I'm moodling about it today is that I was recently reminded of it. On a Sunday morning radio program last weekend, there was an interview with a young woman who was reporting on her plan to read classic literature this summer. You know, Great Expectations, Moby Dick, Sense and Sensibility, and others of that ilk. She went on about how her generation missed out on so much classic lit in school, and as a result, doesn't understand how The Classics have influenced society. For example, after reading The Count of Monte Cristo, she suddenly understood that a television program she'd been watching was modeled on it! Something called Revenge.

The interview made me smile. By the time I was her age, I had managed to read a few classics, and had plans to read more. Mr. Brown, a gentle old soul who lived down the block when I was growing up and did many oil paintings of dairy cows (maybe he was from the Isle of Guernsey??) insisted that I read the the Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer. I did, just to make my neighbour happy, but he never did talk me into reading Beowulf after that -- it was a bit much. In High School we had to read Jane Eyre, which I didn't like, and Pride and Prejudice, which I did. I've read a pretty decent number of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets thanks to Prof. Deluna's university Shakespeare course, and I must admit I enjoyed it, though she and I almost had a fist fight over the spelling of Goneril (how was I supposed to know that my copy of King Lear (which wasn't the one she had had ordered for the University Bookstore because I got mine at Coles) consistently spelled Gonerill incorrectly? My essay went from a 35% to a 90% once she forgave me for using my book's misspelling). I had a fantastic time reading Les Miserables on a tour through Europe, and last summer I finally read (and loved!) Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. There are a lot more classics on my list that will likely go unread simply because life is too short, and there are great new books coming out all the time with contemporary language and stories that are easier for modern minds to follow.

Even so, Don Quixote and I have a long-standing relationship that I can't abandon. I suspect I picked my copy up about a dozen years ago, around the time that I happened upon a Man of La Mancha video at the library. Peter O'Toole and Sophia Loren, 1972. Talk about a classic movie! I had seen the musical at the Citadel sometime in my early twenties, and loved it then, and even though you can't beat live theatre, the movie didn't disappoint. So that's probably when I decided to pick up Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra's book and see how the Knight-errant came off the page.

My copy of Don Quixote is 785 pages of tiny, tiny print and I soon discovered that the Wordsworth translation I chose requires a lot of patience. So much so, that if I happen upon another interesting book, it's sure to be read before I return to Sancho Panza and his master. Last year, a new fourth-centenary translation came out, and a friend who knows that it's taken me so many years to plough through my copy suggested that maybe the new version would be easier to read. At that point, the Knight of La Mancha had been sitting idle on my night table for over a year. I signed out the new translation, and returned it to the library when my time was up. It's just one of those books that's going to take time, I guess.

If you're reading this, you might be wondering why I don't just give up already. Well, the problem is, I've written a book of my own, and Don Quixote figures in it rather prominently -- his story impacts my tale, and one of its main characters reads Cervantes, unabridged. And hey, if she can do it, so can I. After all, it's a classic.

Besides that, when I do sit down, determined to get through a few chapters of Don Quixote's misadventures, I am always amazed by the slapstick comedy, the witty satire, and the poignant moments of true chivalry or friendship within. It takes more than the usual effort to read it, but when I have the patience (as I have had over the years while sitting through my three daughters' swimming lessons) it's more than worthwhile. I find myself smiling at the mad knight with his heart of gold, and especially his squire, Sancho, who has a cliche or proverb for every occasion. They far outshine the sensible, uncrazy people in the book, to the point where they come off wiser than all those who call them mad. Really, it's great stuff!

So lately Don Quixote and I have been going to swimming lessons together again. If you want to bring your own book and join me in the bleachers, you're most welcome.

P.S. Looking for more Simple Suggestions? Try here.


  1. I try, often to read a few classics every year and each time I find I have very little patience for them. It's so sad, I feel like I'm missing out and yet I only have myself to blame..any tips?

    1. Hmmm... maybe you just haven't found the right one. I suspect something humourous would work, just because you have a great sense of humour. Mark Twain, or Stephen Leacock (a Canadian humourist), maybe? Or maybe a more recent classic, like To Kill a Mockingbird? There are also abridged classics, but I haven't got a lot of experience in that department. It's perfectly legit to not like the classics, too.


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