The Program

The Pleasure of Summer Reading: Don Quixote, and Taking it Slow

Don Quixote Manuscript
Title page of first edition of Don Quixote (1605). From Wikipedia.

By A.J. Peters

Well, we’re back again, and boy do we come back quickly.

I spent the last couple weeks of my vacation reading Don Quixote in preparation for our first two seminars. Summer reading seems to be one of those things that people always complain about — just the name of it sounds like some sort of detention. I see a token cruel teacher invading an innocent high-school kid’s summer, forcing them to do the worst of the worst when all they want to do is play. Even at St. John’s, a place where we come to so that we can read, I think it can be a little difficult to pick up a classic text in early August and really throw yourself into it the way your would two months into school — I know it is for me. But that said, there’s no denying the enjoyment of reading something over the course of a month, instead of say, a week.

Ian Tuttle has a great post over on Johnnietalk about the slow culture of St. John’s (it’s a good thing, check it out here). But we still face the dilemma of balancing how many texts we want to read with how much time we’d like to spend on each one. Sometimes I can get caught in the trap where I hurry through one reading in order to fit an extra one in. Or other times I’ll look so closely for greater meaning that I’ll miss the beauty and the fun in the process. But the enjoyment of reading, of course, lies in how we read and not simply how much. And therein is the wonder of summer reading at St. John’s. Yes, the texts read over summer are generally long (Freshman: the Iliad; Sophomores: Genesis, the exception to the rule; Juniors: Don Quixote, Seniors: War and Peace). But we get to read them without compromise: no rushing to finish the seminar reading while we go through the lab proposition one more time.  And if there’s a part you love? Go back and read it again.

In early August, I purchased a copy of the Edith Grossman Don Quixote and the matching audiobook. I spent each morning in my kitchen, listening to the story as I made breakfast and coffee. Having pulled in a wicker rocking chair from the porch, I would then sit and sip as my speakers recounted the notorious adventures of our famous night-errant and his valorous squire, Sancho Panza. I’ve never liked audiobooks much — I want to scribble in the margins and reference past chapters. But Don Quixote was perfect to listen to. I soaked in the luxury of being read to, to simply enjoy a story without pencil in hand. And in the evenings,  I could look back over parts more closely in my paperback: why doesn’t Don Quixote test the integrity of his repaired helmet, after the first test break it? Why does it matter that Don Quixote is aware that he is being written about?

It was a wonderful way to end my summer, and I’m thankful that St. John’s pushed me to take on a challenge I might have passed up otherwise. As a reward, my first seminar took me beyond the hilarity of the story and the beauty of the characters and into the depths of what it means to be an agent. I’ll have to write more about this soon; now I do, actually, have to rush off to look over some lab propositions a couple more times before class. But in the meantime, you could always pick up a copy for yourself!

It’s good to be back.

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