Archive for December, 2008

The One and Only Book

Monday, December 1st, 2008

Codex Manenssis was tagged by by Eugenios’s blog a couple of months ago on a very serious and interesting topic: books. His specific request to me was to name the five most influential books I have ever read.

Boy, I must admit that I was thrilled and challenged by the question.

The initial feelings that his question triggered in me were similar to what he writes in his blog: “Oh, man, JUST five books? That’s not fair at all!” And I didn’t mean fair to me as a reader, but fair to the huge amount of excellent books that have been written all along the humankind history and that wouldn’t have a place on such as elitist collection of just 5 books.

Book of Hours, Paris, 1490But interesting enough, although I still think it is a totally unfair question, the more I thought about “my” five books, the more I found myself having four places too many to fill in that list. Yes, you got that right: I can totally answer Eugenios’s one-million dollar question with just one book.

So, ladies and gentleman, the book that influenced me the most; the book that eventually could replace almost any other book I have read; the book that is capable of driving all kind of feelings in me when I open its covers; the book that I can never get bored or tired of, being able to read it again and again, discovering new things with every new reading; the only book that has been persistently on my night table for a random, short reading every now and then for the last decade… that book, my fellow readers, is El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha.

The first modern novel of history, created by Cervantes’ incomparable talent more than 400 hundred years ago, is according to this humble scribe the best and most complete book ever written. Here you have a few reasons that justify my election:

First of all, this book contains a practical approach to the basics of almost all the important literature disciplines: Want to learn a little bit of ethic, logic or rhetoric? Go and read the speech Don Quixote gives to the goatherd about errant knights and their reasons to be – I always wondered how a crazy man could express himself in such rightful, sensible and beautiful manner. Care for some history? Go and enjoy the chapter that describes the campaigns the Spanish Imperial Army carried out in the Mediterranean against the Turks - Cervantes himself was a soldier in the Spanish Imperial Navy and lost an arm in the Battle of Lepanto, a critical battle that stopped the Turks from invading the Western Mediterranean in 1571. Want to cheer up with some comedy? Go and laugh with Don Quixote and Sancho’s adventures when dealing with the windmills, with the balsam of Fierabras, with Mabrino’s Helmet, with the Knight of the Mirrors or even with Clavileño, the flying wooden horse. Not to mention the letter Teresa Panza writes to her husband, Sancho, compelling him not to forget her when he is governor of the pretended island… As hilarious as it gets. Aristotle, Ethiques, 1376.In the mood for some tragedy? Go and make yours don Quixote’s sadness after his final defeat against the Kight of the White Moon on the immaculate Barcelona’s beaches, or cry along Sancho and Sanson Carrasco when in his mortal bed, Don Quixote refuses to be an errant knight anymore and becomes the sweet and down-to-earth hidalgo Don Alonso Quixano. Too much prose and you feel like reading poetry? Go to the prologue of the book and enjoy Cervantes’ laudatory poems to Don Quixote, Dulcinea, Rocinante and Sancho. It’s hard to believe that those great poems are not always included in some editions of the book. Want to understand sociology? Well, the entire book is an awesome picture on the Medieval Ages and Renaissance’s societies, their social classes and their struggling, problems, way of living… with many of those social rules being still applicable to understand nowadays’ society. Is literature your passion? Then go ahead and dive deep in the first chapters when Cervantes analyzes the entire errant knighthood literature, including characters and writing styles. Interested in politics? Then go hand-with-hand with Sancho and listen to Don Quixote’s advices as the former takes over the government of the Island that the latter promised him as a payment for his services - I bet many today’s prime ministers would need to read those advices to improven their goverment skills. Is it philosophy what drives you crazy? Then the book has something much better to offer than standard philosophy: peasant philosophy. With every popular saying Sancho says all through out the book, he sets a new and humble but fantastic framework to understand and explain any given fact – so incredibly powerful that many of the sayings Cervantes wrote in the book are still used by the 300+ million Spanish speakers all around the world. And of course love is also widely addressed in the book, with so many beautiful love stories that would make Danielle Steel appear as a wannabe.

Second reason why Don Quixote is the one and only book in my list: its meaning and the message I get when I read it  depends very much on my mood and the perspective I read it from. You’re probably thinking “well… duh!, that’s normal, if you are blue you tend to see all blue, right?” Yes, that’s true, but this book has the ability to amplify my perceptions like no other book I have ever read. The dialogs, the descriptions, the characters (especially Don Quixote) are so rich, so complex and so multi-dimensional that they have the ability to capture my vibes (happiness, sadness, irritation, indifference… you name it) and make the book “act” in consequence. The chapters where Don Quixote and Sancho spend some weeks at the Duke’s palace show the typical example for it - The Duke and Duchess’ behavior can be taken as magnificent or evil depending on my own mood, turning them into ones of my most loathed or most admired characters in the book.

La Cité de Dieu, Paris, Maître François, 1475Third and final reason why “The Knight of the Woeful Figure” is the most influential book I have ever read: To me it is absolutely fascinating to read something in Spanish that was written 400 years ago and feel it so close but so far, so modern but so wonderfully old at the same time. Every time I open this book I have a delightful opportunity to have a first-person experience on how my language has evolved in the last 400 years. It is really a mesmerizing experience. The words, the dialogs take me back in time to a place that is almost half a millenium old, but that I feel like real and close because they mostly speak the way I speak. I am literally hypnotized by the differences in the language between then and now: old verbs, popular expressions that got lost during the centuries, old-fashioned words, weird meanings that changed all along the years… But regardless of the differences I can totally understand it, and value it, and enjoy it without having to adapt it to nowadays’ lingo because it is Spanish. And exactly the same text that came out of Cervantes’ quill can then fly through time and without any help land in my mind to recreate the images he envisioned 400 years ago.

What else can I ask for? Umm… maybe for another reading: “En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo vivía un hidalgo de los de lanza en astillero, adarga antigua, rocín flaco y galgo corredor…”

PA.