Some years ago I was teaching Don Quixote (I abridge the novel myself as opposed to using already abridged versions) and was struggling because the students were so unsympathetic to the main character. Quixote is in his 50s, he is ridiculed by the narrator (and meta-fictional problems abound as we are reading the writings of an Arab historian as translated by another unreliable character from scraps of paper–it’s disorienting for really sophisticated readers), he is a character, in short, who lives almost entirely in his own mind. Even the famous adventures like the one with the windmills or his insistence that the “ladies of economic virtue” at the inn are Ladies of aristocracy were off-putting to the students.
Still, all of my students loved Calvin and Hobbes. Here is a character who lives almost entirely in his own mind, often crashes into reality, and sees people and events with what we might call an eisegetic eye–that is he inflicts his own view of them onto them regardless of their reality. So, could I use Calvin and Hobbes to bridge to an appreciation of Don Quixote. As it turns out, yes.
As long as I focussed on helping my students see that Calvin and Hobbes was often asking serious philosophical questions about epistemology and serious psychological questions about perception I was preparing them to recognize the same things in Don Quixote. The comic-book qualities of Quixote gave me the idea to have the students “story-board” Quixote–making it a comic book.
For all the years since then I have assigned Calvin and Hobbes as summer reading (one that EVERYONE has always done) and used it to push question about the boundaries of art and ideas and to let the students know that they may be able to defend their love of South Park or the Simpsons or their music with better arguments than “Because I like it.” If we grant that art exists on a continuum, then lots of possibilities arise.
Next week, Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon,” Ted Chiang’s “Understand,” Limitless, James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev.