The wealthy Alonso Quixano likes a good adventure story. In fact, he spends all his days and nights reading books about medieval knights and their dragon-slaying, princess-saving journeys. One day, though, this guy's brain totally snaps and he decides to dress up in a dusty suit of armor and ride around the countryside looking for adventures.
Sound crazy? Well, that's kind of the point.
When Part 1 of Don Quixote was first published in 1605, it was an instant hit. In fact, people might have liked the book a little too much, because some unscrupulous jerk decided to write a sequel to the original Don Quixote... without Cervantes's permission. This irked ol' Miguel so much that he went and published his own sequel in 1615, which turned into Part 2 of the Don Quixote we all know and love today. In fact, some critics speculate that Cervantes might not have even written his sequel if it weren't for the upstart knock-off artist.
So yeah, when you're grumbling about how insanely long this book is, you can thank that dude who wrote Don Quixote fan fic back in the 17th century.
If the text of Don Quixote ever strutted into an office and applied for a job, its résumé would include a few impressive entries. For starters, the book is considered by many to be the first example of the modern novel. On top of that, most agree that it's the most important work of literature to ever come out of Spain. Aw, what the heck, let's go ahead and say that it just might be the best book ever written.
What's that? You think we're exaggerating? Well, according to a 2002 poll of 100 famous authors from 54 countries, Don Quixote truly is (ahem) "the best book of all time". And it's not like the thing was being stacked up against lame competition. To win this honor, the book beat out the greatest works by Shakespeare, Homer, and Tolstoy.
It's not surprising that Don Quixote has received this kind of support. The novel is such a big deal that it's directly referenced in other classic novels like The Three Musketeers, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Madame Bovary, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, to name just a few. And you know you've made it when you're being referenced by other classic books.
Why Should I Care?
Apart from the fact that the world's greatest living authors have voted Don Quixote the "best book of all time," there are plenty of reasons to care about the book. For starters, the idea of a regular person wanting to dress up and become a superhero is probably even more popular today than it was in Cervantes's time.
After all, just look at how many Batman movies they're making. Batman and Don Quixote are both wealthy dudes who use their fortunes to fund their crime fighting. The only difference is that we're supposed to take Batman seriously, while Don Quixote gives us a more realistic view of what would happen to someone who tried to be a superhero. A better comparison to the Don would be a character like Kick-Ass.
With the popularity of superhero movies today, maybe this generation could use its own Don Quixote to help bring audiences back down to earth. It's great walking out of a superhero movie and feeling like you can do anything. But it doesn't hurt to remind people that they live in the real world, with real-world limitations. Not to burst anyone's bubble, but as Cervantes shows us, maybe it's wisest to wake up every morning and be our best selves in a realistic way, rather than always escape into the world of pure fantasy.
To clarify, Don Quixote is an important book for many reasons, but mostly because it was the first book to bring legitimate real-life consequences into the world of literature. Before it, you just read about people going around chopping off dragons' heads. But in Don Quixote, we realize that challenging people to duels all the time is going to get you beaten up or murdered really quickly. In short, Don Quixote introduced the world of literature to a pesky little thing called reality.