Tilting at Windmills (Again)

A long while ago, I tried to jump into Don Quixote as part of my quest to conquer great literature. It didn’t go well. I found the writing a bit scattered and had a hard time identifying with the characters. I probably didn’t devote enough time to the endeavor during my first attempt, but I’m happy to report I’m back at it and I’ve read (OK, in an audiobook) to Chapter 42! There are 129 chapters in total, but I’m finally really into and enjoy the story. Once I realized that books from this time (17th Century) were essentially the Game of Thrones of their day (meant to be episodic and enjoyed over time), I approached each chapter as an episode of a TV show and this reframing made things much more pallatable. It really is a great book! It talks about human nature in comical and interesting ways and is actually a pretty decent story once you’re used to the style. It makes sense it would take some time to bridge the great span of time and literary style, but I’m so glad I did. I look forward to my adventures with the would-be hero every time I get in the car. The crazy long daily commute is good for something!

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza

Confirmation Bias

I wasn’t able to read that much of Don Quixote today thanks to all the work I have to do for the KBM 8.3 upgrade at work, but what I did get through was wonderful. Cervantes definitely earned his place as one of the Great Western Writers. The older English and heavier 18th Century style can be a bit dense at times, but it’s well worth the effort to get through. At its best, it makes for wonderful reading.

In Chapter 1, the depth of Don Quixote’s delusion is revealed along with the unreliable nature of the narrator. Don Quixote is described as “witless” in many different ways, and the narrator tells us that Don Quixote holds his fantasy world as truer than reality. The thing is, it seems Don Quixote can see through the veil of delusion, he just doesn’t seem to want to. He seems to be suffering from sever confirmation bias: using any scrap of evidence to support the veracity of his fantasy world while ignoring a significant amount of facts, including everyone constantly laughing at him, that it’s not real. The pasteboard half-helmet and skinny horse turned noble steed as well as the false name for himself and pretty much anyone he meets who he needs to be a noble to support the mythology he has created, show Don Quixote’s world as a costume universe of his own making. Don Quixote essentially has made himself his own god, basing a new universe on the framework of chivalristic novels.

Chapter 2 show Don Quixote bent on glory, talking about how his fame will be preserved in various ways. This grandiose vision he has for his existence may be a byproduct of the fact that this gentleman of leisure (despite his somewhat modest fortunes) finds La Mancha really boring and has retreated into the paper world of knights and dragons. Don Quixote has remarkable transformative powers that create wondrous things out of the most mundane objects (a dumpy inn becomes a castle, wenches become fair damsels, a crooked innkeeper a high nobleman from Castilla, moldy bread and terrible stew into a royal feast). We also see that Don Quixote uses props like his papier mache armor and helmet tied with ribbons as talismans that fasten him more tightly in his fantasy land.

Chapter 3 shows the innkeeper as cretin, trying to use the “full and unimpeachable” evidence in books about chivalry to swindle Don Quixote out of a few reals. Don Quixote proves that he is willing to go to extreme lengths to protect his imagined knighthood, “smot[ing]” two young men who move his armor when attempting to get water from a trough. He also uses titles such as “knight” or “dona” to draw others into his imagined reality. This has the added effect of probably being a bit uplifting to the commonfolk he turns into aristocrats.

Tilting at Windmills

After reading a little more in A Well-Educate Mind, I’ve decided to start my epic canonical quest with the book that arguably started the whole novel form itself way before anyone else: Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes. I’m reading the author’s preface now while I wait for some documents to compile on our development server and two things struck me right away:

  1. I love the linguistic richness of the translation into 18th Century English
  2. I need to learn Latin tout de suite! It’s everywhere in this chapter (and in life).

I’ve decided to read it through first on my Android tablet as an ebook in English. I think that will be the best way to learn the facts of the lengthy story (evidently Cervantes hadn’t heard about “brevity being the soul of wit”) before reading it in my nicely bound hardcover edition of the original Spanish. I wonder what Cervantes would say if he knew his classic was freely available online (God bless you, Project Gutenberg) and could be ready on any of myriad softly glowing electronic screens. As the poor guy seems like he’s struggling just to write the preface (or so he portrays through his narration), I think ebooks might just blow his mind.

The preface seems to be about Cervantes doubting himself for not being erudite enough, not having enough sonnets by aristocrats or other great people, to support his book and his friend saying something like, “Just throw in some Latin verses and steal someone else’s quotes to give your book the appearance of authority and erudition you want. Hell, it probably doesn’t really need those things though; it’s something new that destroys the old so it needn’t impersonate it!”

A Canonical Quest

Life moves too quickly in the 21st Century. Tweets and Facebook posts pour into every screen faster than they can be consumed. E-mails, like The Hydra, can be cut back but two or three surge forth to take the place of those answered. The news cycle is so short and the systems for sharing information so good that we’re constantly barraged with headlines from across the globe that shock and depress us. Heck, even if you just watch funny animal videos, there are too many to digest in one lifetime. It’s impossible to keep up, so there’s little point in trying. Instead, it’s time to discriminate.

The term “discrimination” has taken on a very foul taint since the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s, but I’m not talking about discrimination towards people. Instead, I think it’s important to have discriminating taste when it comes to to information. Some information sources such as Facebook have made curation of your feeds automatic, learning what you enjoy seeing and filtering out the detritus. If they didn’t there would simply be too much information from your hundreds of friends and their smartphones to ever keep up with. If they could start working on a similar algorithm for my work e-mail, I’d be overjoyed! This isn’t like the 17th Century when there was no Internet, no twenty-four hour news cycle, and barely any literacy; today, trying to keep up with all the information that is pushed, or perhaps thrown, at you is like trying to drink all the fresh water on your home continent. You simply can’t consume that much and survive. To combat this information overload, I’ve taken steps like turning off notifications on my smartphone so I choose when to review new messages instead of having them slap me in the face automatically, but that only solves part of the problem. The other, more important problem, is deciding which information or media to take the time to really integrate with oneself, not just in a superficial way (i.e. learning facts), but in a deeper way that integrates the information into one’s deeper understanding of the Universe and the human condition.

Determining where to start isn’t always easy, but I’ve found books to be a good source of wisdom in the past. Literature has a way of unveiling great truths through fiction that offers a much more fundamental type of learning than if one memorized the information in a set of encyclopedias. Therefore, I’ve decided to let the greats be my guides and teach me about life. By my fortieth birthday in nine and a half years, my goal is to have read the top 100 greatest books in the Western Canon (in their original language wherever feasible). I’ve purchased the following titles to help me decide what to read and how to begin this journey:

  • The Well-Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer
  • The Book of Great Books: A Guide to 100 World Classics by W. John Campbell
  • The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages by Harold Bloom

I began my quest last night, September 5, 2014, even though it has been a goal of mine for quite sometime. I’ve read a decent number of the “greatest” books, but there are still many whose spines I’ve yet to crack. Once I complete The Well-Educated Mind, I plan to have my first battle with All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. I’ve read the synopsis which has given me a general idea of the plot and will help me really dig in deeper when I read it page-by-page. As I move through each book, I plan to share my thoughts here and record what I learn. By the time this quest is complete, I expect I’ll be a very different person, enriched by my decision to take it slower and focus not on consuming all the information in the world but the best.