What to read during the pandemic

What would be helpful reading during the pandemic

Posted Jul 31, 2020

With so much time on my hands and fear of illness in the air, I wanted to find something to read that would delight and distract and perhaps make me chuckle as well as giving me a glimpse into my own mind as well as that of others. I did not think I was up for long Russian drama or even a realistic French novel like Madame Bovary. I did not want to read books about pandemics like Camus's         " The Plague" or even Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice." One afternoon I had a socially distanced tea with a friend, a psychologist who came to visit who said she thought that living through this pandemic in such isolation was almost like being mad. This was when I thought of Cervantes and his mad hidalgo,  or gentleman: "Don Quixote" 

Cervantes, himself may have known about madness at first hand. He was incarcerated for long periods  several times: in Algeria when he was captured by the Barbary pirates and held for five years before he was ransomed and sent home. He was imprisoned later in his life once or twice,  having fudged the books in his tax collecting. Despite the success of his great book which was immediately translated into many languages he remained poor unlike Shakespeare who died on the same date if not on the same day a rich man.  He knew thus about fame but always from the point of view of someone who might develop a run in his stocking.

Don Quixote is a very funny book with humor for all ages and stages of life: there is slapstick for example when he arrives at the  inn and in the dark is taken by Maritones, the prostitute for someone else; Sancho Panza pretends to thrash himself on his behind by beating the reins of the horse against trees and sighing and groaning loudly making the Don think he is really accomplishing the promised number of lashes in order to free Dulcinea, Don Quixote's imaginary love from her enchantment. There are plenty of scatalogical details that would make a young boy laugh as well as great irony,  and above all the ability to present the world to us without judgement and in all its complexity. Using the dialogue between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza Cervantes suggests the opposition of reality and  fantasy  ( the famous windmills which the Don takes for giants)  realism and idealism:  Sancho Panza thinks constantly about food, money, position and power and Don Quixote rides on searching to right the wrongs of the world, to succor the poor, to help the weak and the damsels in distress. Most of us will recognize our own foible and failures with a laugh and continue on the road of our destinies have traced for us, our load somewhat lightened by Cervantes' brilliance. 

Sheila kohler is the author most recently of "Open Secrets"


"Don Quixote" by Cervantes. Norton Edition