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“Don Quixote” as a manual for living (octavian.substack.com)
71 points by drjohnson 8 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 78 comments





The only people who praise this book are literature majors.

It was a disappointment from beginning to end.

I couldn't understand why people thought it was so great. It didn't feel like an epic. Maybe for its time it was fun to read, but you really have to be deprived of all stimuli to enjoy it (unless you're a literature professor who has to read it). Like maybe stay in a prison cell for a few months. Then yea, it's a pretty fun read.

It's certainly interesting as a cultural artifact. If you wanted to buy a book explaining the Don Quixote craze, how it introduced parody characters to the mainstream, that would be an interesting book.

And I have nothing against Miguel de Cervantes. My gripe is with the people who recommend this book because it was required reading for their literature major, next to Moby Dick and Shakespeare.

Part of me thinks it's so celebrated because it's such a big book. It's like some kind of weird d*ck measuring contest if you want to seem cultured and learned.

It felt like one literal crazy dude going on disappointing adventures and then (spoilers) it just ends with him dying, having regretting everything he did, which in my mind, sums up the book pretty well.

It wasn't 100% bad. There are moments where it's redeeming, but it doesn't live up to the hype; it doesn't even live up to being average.

I strongly recommend people with a sense of taste do anything else with their life. Like if you're not part of the literature cognoscenti and don't mundanely read something just because it's assigned to you, skip this book.

You can literally do anything else and it would be more interesting. Watch paint dry and snails race. You can use Don Quixote as a door stop.


> It felt like one literal crazy dude going on disappointing adventures and then (spoilers) it just ends with him dying, having regretting everything he did, which in my mind, sums up the book pretty well.

Ah yes, and Moby Dick is just about a man who really hates a whale and wants to kill it.

I never know how to respond to reviews like these. If you actually think that sums up the book pretty well then the problem isn't with Don Quixote...

And I'm definitely not a literature major.


He pointed out what he seems to believe are genuine problems with the writing: no engaging story, no uplifting ending, whereas your rebuttal is nothing but an ad hominem. Right now I'd say he is making the better case for the book just not being much fun.

The author wanted an adventure story and a happy ending. The grandparent makes a comparison to reading Moby Dick as an adventure story about killing the whale...

I think it's an apt comparison. If you want a happy ending, you probably shouldn't be reading these books.

The need for a happy ending is a traditionally American taste. So much so that they changed the ending of Clockwork Orange, and other imported novels.


I imagine that in some ways Don Quixote would be far more entertaining to you if it were read to you by an entertaining reader, like a smiling old grandparent reading to you by candlelight while you were tucking into bed, or read on a teenage fall weekend afternoon leaned up against an apple tree.

Headspace is important. 50% of all communication is on the receiver after all, so if you are reading a story that is 100% the greatest book of all time but you can barely attention to it you're only gonna get a fraction out of what the book has to offer.


I quite like Moby Dick. Good book. Shakespeare too.

My problem is with artificial, curated reading lists, rather than something organic that arises out of interest.


> My problem is with artificial, curated reading lists, rather than something organic that arises out of interest.

This reads like a non-sequitur. OP pointed out that your summary of Don Quixote clearly shows you failed to understand the book at all, thus you're criticizing it out of ignorance. Hence the comparison of your summary with claiming that Moby Dick is a story of a guy who hates whales.


A critique made in ignorance is still valid. You don't get to say it is invalid just because you think the person doing the critiquing "didn't understand it", as even if that is true the fact that they didn't understand it is part of their experience of the work.

Of course critique is largely subjective, so you're free to have a very different experience of the work.


The media determines the popular culture which determines what is “organic.” Everything is artificial.

This is almost certainly an example of the Seinfeld Is Unfunny trope[1], where older things seem boring and lame today, because the state of the art has moved forward so much, even though they were completely groundbreaking and genre defining when they came out.

[1] https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/SeinfeldIsUnfunn...


I was alive and of young TV-watching age when Seinfeld was still running. I hated it then, and I still don't like it now. Sometimes things the rest of the world loves just don't grab us.

My favourite book is the Count of Monte Cristo, but I couldn't finish the Three Musketeers, to give another example. Same author, same era, but one grabbed me and the other didn't.


The thing i hated about Seinfeld was the format: sitcom with canned laughter. The content could be interesting if I could just get past the format . I couldn’t. I’m with you.

The Don Quixote we are delivered is usually two books, and I think the first is far superior to the second. Either way, they are two different kinds of books published years apart that we are given as one.

Much of the genius of Don Quixote is the satirical take on Chivalric Romances that were popular at the time. He uses tropes from those stories, mocks them, and expands the scope of the narrative. Of course, this and the political context aren’t particularly present to the modern reader. Even though the book is pioneering and inventive, so were early computers that filled rooms; yet, outside of their novelty and significance, they would bore anyone with a smartphone.


I own a smartphone, but I also really enjoy messing around with old hardware because its fascinating and illuminating to see what has changed and what hasn't. Maybe some present day readers of Don quixote find the same enjoyment?

I think its very funny as in laugh out loud funny, regardless of its age. The situations are plainly ridiculous on the face of them. Its more Marx brothers than Noel Coward funny, the former is timeless while the latter is the kind of curiosity more akin to vintage computing.

> Even though the book is pioneering and inventive, so were early computers that filled rooms; yet, outside of their novelty and significance, they would bore anyone with a smartphone.

I'm not sure you were aware when you wrote that that smartphones are a consumer good which are mindlessly held by people who don't think too much of it, whereas nowadays the only people interested in those computers that filled rooms are those who develop and nurture a deep understanding for the art, understand the technical limitations and challenges, and value them for the technical tour de force their are.

In the past there were people who also valued and devoured penny dreadfuls like crazy. I'm sure penny dreadfuls were the smartphones of their time.


I think for all disillusioned readers it's absolutely crucial to read this alongside the footnotes. But I've also seen people similarly disillusioned by books as recent as Catch-22.

Huh? hehe That's so surprising. I thought it was ridiculously funny. Even the chapter titles are very funny. I understood why it's considered to be so great. Besides being the first modern novel. "It didn't feel like an epic." - uh that makes me think you didn't understand it at all. Quixote himself is into epics, everything about it is the ridiculous opposite of epic.

I guess if you don't get it, you don't get it. Maybe you had an old translation? Hmm no, I wasn't just pretending to enjoy it! I'm not sure why you read the whole thing if you didn't enjoy any of it?! That's a bit weird.

(Not a literature major! I almost never read fiction, but I had a "great novels" period in my early 20s when I read some famous classics - Quixote, Jane Eyre, Mill on the Floss, Great Expectations etc, and really loved them all. Well ok, I was into Shakespeare, Keats, Coleridge etc for a while too before that.)


I found it quite funny too, but the main character has a bit of a 17th century Adam Sandler quality, straddling a line that some readers find more annoying than humorous.

This is what I like about it so much (I'm currently reading it)! I'm by no means a fan of Adam Sandler, and also not so sure that he would be the best modern analogy, but in my opinion, the book gives the vibe of a very early, written sitcom. Everything Don Quixote does is so absurd, and so many people around him realize it but just play it off or are simply baffled.

For my own enjoyment I have however seen that the translation that I use is really important. I'm reading it in German, and the new translation by Susanne Lange is much more pleasant to read than some other older translation I have in digital form.


I would love to see Adam Sandler do a Sandlerized Don Quixote, with Rob Schneider as Sancho Panza yelling, "You can do it!" as he barrels down on a windmill.

"Like maybe stay in a prison cell for a few months. Then yea, it's a pretty fun read."

You must know the history of Cervantes and meant the above in reference to his time in prison otherwise this is quite hilarious and profoundly the funniest thing I have read in a long time.


So is it the 400 years of readers and literary critics who are wrong, or is it you who are wrong? Whether or not you were entertained by it is a matter of personal taste, but declaring that it’s uninteresting suggests that you only gave it a cursory reading. I would also suggest that no one uses Don Quixote as a way to exaggerate their intelligence, it was deliberately written in a way so as to be accessible to the common man, which is part of the reason it has lasted for so long.

“Am I so out of touch? No, it is the 400 years of readers who are wrong.”

People may think your take is snarky but it’s very good actually. Classics become classic because they are beloved, not because “literature majors” demand it to be so. No novel has a readership outside of its own century that is not exceptional in some way. They must reach across time and into the universal heart of humanity to communicate so far beyond their own times. That’s why they’re still read. That’s why they’re classic.


> Classics become classic because they are beloved, not because “literature majors” demand it to be so.

Although I totally agree with you, there's also the meaning that the Classics is just a collection of books people claim to have read but never did.


I think it's popular because it was a remarkable book for its time, but like Uncle Tom's Cabin or The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, I wouldn't say it's a fun literary read.

Strong cultural impact? Yes. Riveting novel? No.

You know how academics rack up citation circles to "boost the impact of their publications"?

Literature is a bit like that where you have a small group of people dictating the tastes of others, until it eventually collapses in on itself like a black hole and you're staring at an empty canvas, a banana peel, and an empty can of deodorant and calling it art.


do you have some examples of books considered classics that "collapses in on itself..."?

>The only people who praise this book are literature majors.

The sweeping generalizations do a great disservice to your otherwise good review.

I'm not a literature major, and I cannot recommend Don Quixote enough. My reason is simple: it was one of the funniest reads ever.


EE + Math major here. Loved it. Literally laugh-out-loud funny in parts. The sarcasm and wit is astonishingly modern.

Agreed. It's genuinely funny at times. It's worth at least trying it for a few days

> Part of me thinks it's so celebrated because it's such a big book.

It's celebrated as an important milestone in the emergence of the modern novel, but more importantly perhaps, both for its humour, and profound empathy for the human condition.


Sounds like some classic elitism. If you don't like it, it is because you don't get it or didn't finish it. Even though you likely didn't finish it because you didn't like it. You see this kind of thing in a lot of different mediums.

Right? If you genuinely enjoyed it, hey, that's great. Not every book is for everyone. Have at it. Everybody's got different tastes.

But to go up there on a pedestal and mark it as one of the great literary achievements of the past 400 years and anybody who disagrees otherwise is a rube...Come on now.


> It felt like one crazy dude going on disappointing adventures and then it just ends with him dying, having regretting everything

Don Quixote is a very deceiving book if you don't understand its true nature. Looks like a sad and depressing history, but in fact Is a savage and dark parody.

The book is linked to a culture, an age and a landscape. We are probably unable to grasp a lot of references in a book written thousands of years before, so is a little like in the Simpsons, that small children don't enjoy so much (by lack of context) as adults do.

The author is a mutilated ex-soldier that has seen enough of the war to feel cynical about warmongers. He as a poor writer trying to struggle, probably envied the success of cheap literature and "pulp" histories from this age. The book is his personal revenge against the "undeserved winners". Specially against dilapidated nobility craving for adventures and glory and dragging lower classes to feed their wars and crazy campaigns and die for the cause.

To write a book criticizing the wars wouldn't be wise. Kings do the war, but he can target the nobility that thinks that is somebody but don't have any experience with war, working, women or the real life. And here comes the nerd.

Quixote is basically a grown man so obsessed by superhero comics and so clueless about society that one day starts driving around the neighborhood disguised as batman and searching for crimes in his bicycle. The problem is that he hasn't any money, talent or fighting skills, so the results are entirely predictable. Some people would find it hilarious, for other it hits too close to home and is not funny at all.

You shouldn't like Don Quixote, is just a crash test dummy, a freak and an idiot for most of the book. But if you meet personally somebody that fits in the stereotype, now you can enjoy each time he hits the ground, chooses the wrong option, and each time "a piano falls in his head".


>The book is his personal revenge

The fact that you understand individual revenge against societies and know the creative shapes it can take, gives you credibility.

But I don't think there are a lot of people that manage to get up to that level of understanding of the complexity of human behavior and their relationship with society.

Maybe the problem is the bubble I surround me with, but for me you're the first to ever even bring it up as a concept, even though it is something that interests me, I love the duplicity and depth it takes, the veracity and creativity it can take, the willfulness it requires to exact your revenge and intentionally releasing your wrath on all of humanity in a constructive way.

But I suspect most people will have a hard time really understanding your comment.

Though as a current day Don Quixote, I do appreciate it. But don't think I don't know what I am. I just don't care about your judgement. You're just as insane and ridiculous as I am, I just embraced it with the same willful ignorance you're using to deny it. The fact that I will get punished for that is something I'm willing to accept in return for the bewilderment I cause. It's all a joke after all and I can't die more than a couple of times anyway.

Not like there's a whole lot else to do once you realize this is just a simulator and not a very good one at that. The fuck is this thing even supposed to do? Fucking AI has way too much processing power available if it's messing around to this degree.


Math + Physics major. Don Quixote was a blast.

Well, I'm a CS major and software engineer and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I struggled with it too. One of the first major works I gave up on.

I read Don Quixote as a teen, in Spanish, and reading this now makes me think I very definitely read an abridged version!

It was one of the novels behind René Girard's early development of his theory of mimetic desire+, in Deceit, Desire and the Novel ([0] is a review).

I'm fascinated that OP sees the book as offering subtle life advice, while Girard sees it as an analysis of an aspect of human nature we all share.

+as made famous by Peter Thiel... but there's much more to the theory than just a paradigm to build social media on.

[0] https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2010/feb/08/theo...


Its funny that the author puts down the play, The Man of La Mancha, while describing the importance of the text. The play is elegant and created great works of its own like “The impossible dream” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Impossible_Dream_(The_Ques...) which I would argue distills of the most poignant points about living a good life. Honestly, I barely remember Don Quixote but the lyrics to the Impossible Dream I can easily recall.

Perhaps, but Man of La Mancha misses the whole point of the novel. Alonzo Quixano was not a noble man - translated into today's world, he'd be a full-on QAnon type.

I found the play more of a meta comment on the book, as if it was deliberately misrepresented to make fun of the audience.

If the length is imposing to you (which it generally is), it’s good to know that what you get is almost always two separate works published ten years apart together as part one and part two.

Part 1 is relatively short and hilarious and can be very much read and enjoyed on its own. It is perhaps easier to get tired of the style in part two.

It also matters which translation you read.


The funny part of Part 1 was when a local started a book-burning, because DQ had gone crazy after reading too many books, and thus these volumes were tragically lost forever. The shocking part was when some side character recounted an incident which befell him in America, and realizing that the Americas were contemporary.

> It also matters which translation you read.

Have you got a recommendation?


Edith Grossman

I would recommend to advanced Spanish learners Lathrop's Spanish version with English footnotes. They help with the trickier and mostly uncommon words or historical context.

I read Don Quixote in school, but it's been a long time. In my mind, the "canon" version is now Man of La Mancha which, as the article notes, "could not be more distant" from the original. I find the same has happened with The Secret Garden and The Scarlet Pimpernel.

I'm not immediately convinced that Don Quixote is a more effective manual for living than other classic works of literature, but it's interesting enough to make me consider a reread. I'm sure it would be a completely new experience.


I’ll have to take on DQ again with this perspective.

Now, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - that is a manual for living. Many quotes are words to abide by. “Where it is objectively inaccurate, the Guide strives to be definitively inaccurate.” “We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!” “Who can rule, when nobody who wants to rule can be allowed to?” etc. The raging absurdities are fantastically insightful.


> The majority of readers, at least American readers, first learn of Don Quixote through Man of La Mancha, a syrupy and formulaic Broadway musical

or high school lit class



The entirety of https://octavian.substack.com/ is hilarious. Is it here because it was composed by AI?

Or as George Bush might have said, "Why is the Classics?"

Couple of other books I would recommend: Revolt of Angles, Candide, The blue peril.

No particular reason other them being obscure (on HN at least) and pretty good reads.


Along Don Quixote, I'd suggest Lazarillo de Tormes, too. A rascal/rogue guiding an blind oldie man.

Does anyone have a preferred english translation for Don Quixote?

I have only read the Edith Grossmann translation but found it quite good. I've read somewhere that it is not the most comical translation, but strives to be correct in a sense. Also, all the "old" words are described in footnotes, for those of us who are not experts on medieval litterature or 1600s ship concepts.

I read the first 100 or so pages of the Starkie translation, but lost it and later read I believe the Cohen translation in its entirety. I thought the Starkie version was clearly superior for the part I read.

Don Quixote in Spanish households is like Gödel, Escher, Bach for techies. You bought it when you were young, it sits proudly on your bookshelf, you talk about how meaningful it was... but you've only read a chapter or two.

(c'mon, you gonna pretend you really read the entire GEB on the bookshelf behind you right now?)


> pretend you really read the entire GEB

Seriously? This is a book that is plenty accessible for high school students, and not outrageously long or notably archaic.

If you want an English-language analogy stick to something like Canterbury Tales or Moby Dick or Ulysses or Infinite Jest.


We read Moby Dick in high school

I have Knuth's TACP sitting proudly on my bookshelf and ... I flipped through it a couple of times thinking, wow, I'm never going to read this am I.

Yeah— that's one of those tomes that takes a superhuman amount of will for most people to push through if they're not being compelled by university course work. Very well-written but it's just a lot of information to absorb.

When I was a teenager, just before I started more seriously getting into programming on the school computers, a Russian friend asked his dad— a soviet university trained software engineer— how he could learn to code. His dad handed him a his stack of Knuth and said "read that and then get back to me."

Of course, the kid read 10 pages of Fundamental Algorithms, put the book down, and never tried to learn how to code ever again. Why would he have? As far as he was concerned, the very first steps were a big pile of confusing theory that wasn't bringing him closer to his goal of doing some fun projects with a computer at any point in the near future. He had to absorb all that just to start? Forget it.

Looking back, I think his dad probably thought it was funny and probably even joked with his coworkers about it... but I wonder how different my friend's path would have been if his dad handed him a copy of Learning Perl (it was the mid 90s) and helped him get ActivePerl installed on his machine. If your nerd machismo is so intense that you're alienating your own teen kid with it, you really need to reconsider your life strategy.


Great story and a cautionary tale for me. That dad sounds like a real asshat.

You should just pick a random section and start reading; or better still find a section relevant to something you have worked with before. Knuth is a clear writer and pretty funny, and there is a lot of great insight packed in there.

Note that TAOCP is more a reference book for professional researchers than a book to skim quickly cover-to-cover.


First reaction: surely there must be a better language to describe algorithms than a made up assembly language.

2nd reaction: holy shit, this is how programmers thought until the 80s.

It is worth working through some of the code until they make sense, but Introduction to Algorithms is much more accessible.

Can't deny the boxes set looks great on a shelf, though.


It's an encyclopedia, you aren't supposed to read it cover to cover.

Might be because that I read it in translation, but Don Quixote always strikes me as something quite easy to read. It’s funny, has a light-hearted tone (however deep its underlying message is), and the story is straightforward.

I did read the whole thing in high school in 1990. I learned to program lisp as a direct result. GEB was one of the more influential books of my late teens, up there with Doors of Perception and The Cuckoo's Egg.

I've taken 3 runs at GEB each time getting a bit further than the last. It's been about 15 years since the last attempt, I think I should give it a go again soon, I think I'm readier for it now than I was in the past.

My copy of GEB fell apart at the spine before I managed to read the whole thing. It's an enormous book and my paperback copy just didn't make it through the trials and tribulations of the daily tram ride to university.

One day.


There was a "Don Quixote" class at my university in the Spanish department. I really regret not taking it because there's no way I'm going to read it in my lifetime.


Haha, I hardly finished the first chapter in GEB.

I read GEB, it only took a decade and a half.

I have only read about 80 pages of El Quijote.


Of course!

It's not like it is a long book.

Now Metamagical Themas is a different story.


Metamagical Themas, a crossover of Don Quixote and GEB

Yes, in high school, over a few weeks.



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