In debates, the word “quixotic” is nearly always meant as an insult—which puzzles me, since I can hardly think of a greater compliment. The way most people refer to Don Quixote makes you wonder if they have actually read the book. In fact, it would be interesting to find out whether Don Quixote is still as widely read as the universal popularity of the character would normally suggest.1 But it could be awkward to conduct such an enquiry; especially among educated people, one often encounters a strange misconception that there are a certain number of books one should have read, and it would be shameful to acknowledge that one has failed in this sort of cultural obligation. Personally, I disagree with such an attitude; I confess I read only for pleasure.
Of course, I am talking here about creative literature (fiction and poetry), not about the theoretical literature (information, documents) which scholars and professional people must master in order to perform competently within their respective disciplines. For instance, you would naturally expect that—let us say—a medical practitioner should have read some treatises of anatomy and pathology; but you cannot demand that he be also thoroughly conversant with all the short stories of Chekhov. (Though, when you come to think of it, between two doctors whose medical qualifications are otherwise equal, I believe I would rather trust the one who reads Chekhov.)
Literary critics do fulfill a very important role (as I shall try to show in a moment), but there seems to be a problem with much contemporary criticism, and especially with a certain type of academic literary criticism. One has the feeling that these critics do not really like literature—they do not enjoy reading. Worse even, if they were actually to enjoy a book, they would suspect it to be frivolous. In their eyes, something that is amusing cannot be important or serious.
This attitude is unconsciously pervading our general view of literature. As a result, we tend to forget that until recently most literary masterpieces were designed as popular entertainment. From Rabelais, Shakespeare, and Molière in the classical age, down to the literary giants of the nineteenth century—Balzac, Dumas, Hugo, Dickens, Thackeray—the main concern of the great literary creators was not so much to win the approval of the sophisticated connoisseurs (which, after all, is still a relatively easy trick) as to touch the man in the street, to make him laugh, to make him cry, which is a much more difficult task.
The notion of “literary classic” has a solemn ring about it. But Don Quixote, which is the classic par excellence, was written for a flatly practical purpose: to amuse the largest possible number of readers, in order to make a lot of money for the author (who needed it badly). Besides, Cervantes himself hardly fits the lofty image most people have in mind when they think of inspired writers who create immortal masterpieces: originally a soldier of fortune, he was wounded in…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.