On reading ambitions

It should be known that the above-mentioned hidalgo, during the periods when he was idle – which was most of the year – devoted himself to reading romances of chivalry with such eagerness and pleasure that he almost completely neglected the hunt, and even the administration of his estate. His curiosity and folly got to such an extreme that he sold many acres of farmland to buy romances of chivalry to read, and he took home every one of them he could find” Miguel de Cervantes, The ingenious hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605) [translated by Tom Lathrop, 2014], p 19

Today I strolled through the city during my lunchtime break, and wandered down to the best bookshop in the CBD, or central activity district as it has been recently renamed, with a determined plan to return with one great unread or much loved but recently neglected by myself, classic work of literature.

I did first browse through books of current affairs, since I felt I should familiarise myself at least with the terms and titles of current debate in my lowly role as an under-castellan of a minor and sleepy provincial government in the Southern Pacific. From those racks I collected a recent essay proposing Australia quarrel a little more with our great ally and imperial friend, the United States of America. Surely the only sensible course, at least in a world made less secure by the day by the chest-beating of the US national intelligence community and its grand old men and women.

Then I turned to deeper interests in the long rack holding classics, plays and poetry. I paused a while over the Saga of Volsung and the Elder Edda, and passed over reams of Austen and Dickens and the comfortable favourites. Then I thumbed through a new edition of Yeats’ selected poems. From there I read his “Why should not old men be mad.”

WHY should not old men be mad?
Some have known a likely lad
That had a sound fly-fisher’s wrist
Turn to a drunken journalist;
A girl that knew all Dante once
Live to bear children to a dunce;
A Helen of social welfare dream,
Climb on a wagonette to scream.
Some think it a matter of course that chance
Should starve good men and bad advance,
That if their neighbours figured plain,
As though upon a lighted screen,
No single story would they find
Of an unbroken happy mind,
A finish worthy of the start.
Young men know nothing of this sort,
Observant old men know it well;
And when they know what old books tell
And that no better can be had,
Know why an old man should be mad.

W.B. Yeats, Selected Poems

No single story of an unbroken happy mind indeed. It was perhaps the affirmation to know what old books tell, and the noble madness of the aged truth, monuments of unageing intellect, that led me like a bloodhound on the scent of its hare to that grandest of tales of old men and the folly of their books.

So I walked home with a 2014 translation of Cervantes, Don Quixote, or to give the full name from the early frontispiece, reproduced if in translation in this edition by Alma Classics, The ingenious hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha.

Cervantes’ great comedy is one of those books that you can believe that you know but have not read, and especially so for someone like me, who is inclined to tilt at false dragons, clothed as windmills, and more inclined to know people in books than in real life. Yet I have not read Don Quixote.

But now I will, or at least give myself a plan to read its nearly 700 pages, full of comedy, classical and early modern literary references that I will rely on notes to understand, and a human understanding from a writer whose story I have begun to be intrigued by. It is on a first pass a much funnier book than many that I have ploughed determinedly on with. Proust. Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. Tolstoy’s War and Peace, although I must say I did skim over the long essay on his pet theories of history near the end. On the other hand, there are many long books that have defeated my overly ambitious plans to ingest whatever wisdom and creative spark they still hold: a six volume history of private life, that stands embarrassed on my selves, the Bible, Musil’s Man without Qualities, and of course, Don Quixote

It makes me wonder about ambitions in reading. Today’s literature is so vast. It is an ocean beyond ambition’s compass. There is too much to read, even when you do not explore the shores expanded exponentially with all the internet samizdats to which I contribute and celebrate. Is there a time when the sheer enormity of all the written words will lead me to give up on trying to understand the classics, the great challenging works, the necessary elements of a humanist education, and just skim social media feeds for my remaining years of silence?

Then again ambitions in reading surely serve some good ends. They set a course across that vast uncrossable ocean that is the literature of everything that could be read, and allow this poor reader to tack close to at least some known shores. If I say I will read Cervantes and fail, then at least I would have tried, and, even if taken in fragments, the attempt makes me stronger. What I fail to read, still makes me stronger?

So I will go to bed tonight with my heavy old Spanish master, held in my weak old wrist, and thank ambition for letting me know, if only for moments, the imagination of the dead. In our madness is our truest dignity?

Image Source: via Wikimedia Commons, Juan de Jauregui y Aguilar (circa 1583 – 1641) – Portrait of Cervantes, assumed. 3. The Bridgeman Art Library, Object 119216

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