As this is my first diary entry under the category of Books That Changed My Life, it is perhaps fitting that I begin with a book that acts as a cautionary tale about books that can change your life. The Ingenious Gentleman: Don Quixote de la Mancha, written by Miguel Cervantes in 16th century Spain, is just such a book. I read excerpts of it as part of my assigned reading in a college course on world literature in 1965. Years later I would read the entire, unabridged, two-volume work. Although I regard this book as important, because it changed my life by keeping me from changing my life, I must admit that the excerpts alone were sufficient. So, if you decide to read this novel, an abridged version will do just fine.
The title character becomes obsessed with books of chivalry and knight-errantry, reading them all through the night. The result of so much reading and so little sleep is that he loses his mind. In his madness, he conceives of himself as a knight, just like the ones he had read about, and is determined to ride about the countryside in quest of adventures, by which he will right many wrongs, while achieving much glory and renown. And as he transforms himself, so too does he transform the world around him. Some old pieces of armor that had once belonged to his great-grandfather are polished up, with a missing piece being replaced by cardboard. His nag becomes Rocinante, a mighty steed. An unwitting farm girl becomes Dulcinea del Toboso, his lady love, in whose honor he will perform deeds of great merit. And a neighboring farmer, Sancho Panza, is persuaded to become his squire. Thus arranged, they sally forth and have many misadventures, the iconic one being the windmills he imagines to be giants, the tilting at which has become a common expression.
Much as it pains me to confess it, I have been guilty more than once of attempting to emulate some character in a book that I had read, or even more so, in a movie that I had seen. Of course, when I did this as a child, it was forgivable. Every Saturday morning, my friends and I went to see a movie, and every Saturday afternoon, we acted out what we had seen. That is why Tom Sawyer, another character of fiction that is unduly influenced by tales of romance and adventure, merely makes us smile, for he has his youth as an excuse.
But as I got older, my quixotic behavior became increasingly inappropriate. By the time I got to high school, I had seen movies like Blackboard Jungle, High School Confidential!, and Rebel Without a Cause. So naturally I just had to become a juvenile delinquent. I slicked and swirled my hair into a ducktail. I bought a black-leather jacket and some pointy-toed shoes with taps on them to make an assertive “click” as I walked down the halls of my high school. Finally, as a necessary fashion accessory to my wardrobe, I got myself a wicked-looking switchblade knife. But there was just one problem. Unlike a real juvenile delinquent, I never broke the law, other than some occasional underage drinking, and I did not like fighting. The difference was critical, because only by committing crimes and getting into fights does a young man prove he is not just playing dress-up in his gangster-chic, but is actually the badass he appears to be. After all, had Don Quixote come across a real giant, and run him through with his lance, no one would ever again have thought him ridiculous. Instead, I was just a poseur, and I guess everyone knew it but me.
I wish I could say that as soon as I read Don Quixote, I never again embarrassed myself by identifying with a fictional hero, but I cannot; because at the same time I was reading this novel in a perfunctory manner, I was caught under the spell of James Bond. Goldfinger had started showing at the theaters a few months previously, and Bond was all the rage. Even today, when I watch the introductory scene in the casino in Dr. No, I ache with envy. Oh, to be that cool! Fortunately, I only played the fool by trying to be as cool as 007. Thank goodness I did not get so carried away as to think I could be a spy. I do wonder sometimes, though, how many Bond wannabes joined the CIA under the influence of those movies. I remember reading in the newspaper that this agency was experiencing a significant increase in applications for employment during that period.
Speaking of others, it is some consolation to me that I am not the only one I know who tried to be like some character of fiction. A friend of mine thought he could be Sherlock Holmes, and went about making acute observations and shrewd deductions, not a single one of which ever panned out. And then there was the guy that used to practice his quick-draw at the beginning of every episode of Gunsmoke. He got pretty good at it too, for one night he put a bullet right through the TV tube before Matt Dillon even cleared leather.
It is hard to say just how much of the wisdom of Cervantes had sunk in from taking World Lit in college, but about seven years later I got a refresher course. Woody Allen took up the same theme in Play It Again, Sam, in which he plays Allan, a neurotic film critic who has seen way too many Humphrey Bogart films, and struggles with his desire to be like him. Woody Allen’s physical appearance in contrast with that of Bogart is every bit as ludicrous as that between the mournful countenance of Cervantes’ knight and the dashing good looks of those he had read about. As noted above, however, it is more than just a matter of appearance. One also has to be able to act the part successfully. When the ghost of Humphrey Bogart tells Allan to kiss Linda (Diane Keaton), who is a married woman, Allan protests that if he tries that, she will slap his face. “I’ve had my face slapped lots of times,” Bogart replies. “Yeah,” says Allan, “but when it happens to you, your glasses don’t go flying across the room.”
Well, monkey see, monkey do. We naturally imitate others, and the characters in books and movies, being the idealized creations of art, can exert a powerful influence on us, far more so than the people we meet in real life. To a certain extent, this is a good thing, for it can make us aspire to be better than we are. But if we go too far in emulating these romantic figures, we run the risk of looking as ridiculous as Don Quixote. And so, if Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities inspires you to be a little less selfish in your dealings with your fellow man, that’s fine. Just don’t lose your head.