The opening words of Jorge Santayana’s Introduction to Three Philosophical Poets are: The sole advantage in possessing great works of literature lies in what they can help us to become. I cannot think of better words than these, from the Spanish Harvard philosopher, to urge us to read.
People read newspapers, self-help books, romances, mysteries, thrillers, and shun the great works of world literature as dull and difficult to understand. In the Spanish-speaking world everyone exults the magnificence of Don Quijote, and Spanish is defined as la lengua de Cervantes. I think it would be very safe to say that Cervantes´s Don Quijote is a great work of fiction nobody has read.
Of course, the plot of the novel is simple: a thin, nutty old man and a fat, ignorant guy, a Spanish hillbilly, roam Spain together in search of beatings. And they get plenty. So why read this nonsensical plot? The answer, my friends, is blowing in Santayana´s words. What Don Quijote and Sancho say, their discourses upon things divine and earthly help us to become better, different, ourselves even. Four hundred years ago Cervantes spoke through his characters saying and explaining things which are very relevant to us all today, in 2019. At one point Don Quijote says Yo sé quien soy, I know who I am. Do we know who we are? The novel does not mention cell phones, Twitter, Facebook, international flights… but it mentions the human predicament and how to look life in the face, without fear and with freedom. Every piece of advice that the knight gives his squire we can heed ourselves. Sancho´s retorts give us plenty of food for thought.
The lengua de Cervantes has evolved, like Shakespeare´s English, thank God. Often we read words and expressions that we do not understand, which require an effort. It is worthwhile to make that effort, and we have dictionaries to help us. We will find answers to questions about our tribulations, personal afflictions, hardships and adversities. Certainly Don Quijote knew about these first hand, because he wanted to be himself in a world that did not care for eccentrics, for those who go against the grain. He teaches us to face society, and even to confront it. To be free.
Books are the foremost essence of freedom and fraternity. That is why they have been banned so many times in the past, and even now, I dare say. In books we can find worlds, attitudes, answers that otherwise we would have never been able to discover.
Let us read, especially worthwhile and time-proven stuff: the works of Cervantes, Goethe, Shakespeare, Zola, Pirandello, Eça de Queirós, Cela, García Márquez, Tolstoi, Balzac… marker in hand in order to highlight those phrases or passages that will help us to become better, indeed, through their experience.
But… what do you think?
Also read: Keeping alive the art of penmanship