The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha occupies a unique position of exaltation in the annals of literature, routinely praised as both the greatest book ever written, and the first modern novel. Precisely because it is so exalted (not to mention lengthy) it can seem intimidating or unapproachable - embalmed as an artefact of 'World Literature', something to be revered rather than read. If that sense of holy dread hasn't vanished by Chapter XVII, then the vivid description of Sancho Panza beginning "to gush at both ends", having ingested what he's assured is a mystical potion of healing, ought to do the trick. This is the most memorable among several scenes of scatological farce which occur throughout, utterly killing any sense we might have of reading a work of 'high' culture and, in the process, serving a crucially important purpose of their own. They don't tell us what the book is, but what it isn't: even remotely respectable.
Its fundamental unrespectability is what makes the book something more than mere Great Literature - a designation it wasn't written for, and certainly wasn't granted when first published. The 'chivalric romances' from which Quixote takes his madness and the book its theme were regarded by the self-appointed guardians of good-taste in sixteenth-century Spain as the lowest form of literary life: at best worthless, and at worst actively dangerous. The advent of mass-printing spread violent, fantastical tales among an insatiable reading public, largely regarded as passively-absorbing fools by moral watchmen like theologian Pedro Malón de Chaide, who demanded "what are such pernicious books in the hands of the young, but...a knife in the hands of a madman?" In Don Quixote Cervantes claims to oppose the degrading influence of such books, yet the vast knowledge of them he displays in the process of writing it suggests a more complex kinship. If we want to fully appreciate what a great leap forward in literary evolution the book was, we cannot forget that it emerged from the primordial ooze of a reviled form of popular entertainment.
It is clear that the immediate audience for the colourful world Cervantes created would have been the readers of those selfsame romances. As Thomas Mann observed in his Voyage with Don Quixote, if the book's goal was to discourage their taste for the fantastic, it must be regarded as a total failure: "He crams his hosts of readers full to their hearts ' content with the very diet from which he would wean them - a pleasant cure!" With a narrative which endlessly dismantles and examines its own inner workings, inviting us to do the same, Cervantes' book suggests a very different idea of readers, conceived of as active rather than passive, seizing and shaping the fictions they consume like the eccentric Duke and Duchess of Part II. This remarkable reflexivity, which makes us instinctively want to classify the book as 'postmodern' rather than 'early-modern', is what ultimately dispels any sense of a prestigious, intimidating distance. No other book can more completely shatter the protective glass under which we normally keep relics of the past - Don Quixote is now over 400 years old, and is still stubbornly refusing to act its age.