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 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 scatological 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 foibles and failures with a laugh and continue on the road 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