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Exactly 400 years ago, in April 1616, two of the world’s best-known writers died. One of them, William Shakespeare, wrote plays and poems familiar to most everybody. The other, Miguel de Cervantes, wrote “Don Quixote,” perhaps the world’s first novel – and perhaps also the first novel few felt up to finishing. Here in Evanston we estimate that maybe six people have read the whole two-pound text. But by next summer that number may top 100.
What will trigger this surge in Cervantes readership? “Don Quixote” is this year’s choice for the Evanston Public Library’s “Mission Impossible.” Since 2010, EPL has sponsored an annual book-discussion-and-support group, with the quixotic goal of polishing off a daunting work. Do M.I. readers devour sleek novels that are “impossible to put down?” No they do not. Instead they nibble at a whopping classic that must be put down, many times, during months of devoted reading.
Such a mission cannot be pursued solo. M.I. readers meet monthly or bimonthly in small groups to help each other through the 1,000-or-so pages, slowly. “Reading a book over nine months allows us to read 10 pages a day,” said participant Kevin Coughlin, “and still have time for other books.”
M.I. began with James Joyce’s famously unreadable “Ulysses” and a bold motto: “The Few. The Proud. The Persistent.” More than 100 intrepid Evanston readers cracked open their Joyces in 2010. About half finished. In the years since, M.I. stalwarts have checked off Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” Flannery O’Connor’s stories, George Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” and, last year Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.”
This year’s kick-off event took place at EPL on Sept. 26, with an informative lecture by Northwestern University’s Dr. Dario Fernandez-Morera. Those who missed it yet still wish to participate need not worry. There is still time to join before the first small-group meetings later in October. Anyone interested can Just visit https://missionimpossibledonquixote.wordpress.com/ or call EPL at 847-448-8620.. Discussion groups meet at four Evanston sites: the Main Library, the North Branch, the Celtic Knot, and Bookends & Beginnings bookstore.
As in past years, M.I. discussion groups will be led by EPL staffers Russell Johnson, Lesley Williams, Heather Norborg, Nancy Engel, Lorena Neal, Ben Remsen, this columnist, and volunteer Neil Lukatch, each of whom brings rich life experience and wit to the meetings – or at least occasional doughnuts. Mr. Johnson, the M.I. coordinator, deadpans that “RoundTable readers should know that anyone courageous of heart and sturdy of bookmark may join our noble quest – there’s always room at our discussion ‘round tables.’”
Those who have read this far are probably not among the six Evanstonians who have already polished off DQ. But they likely have some knowledge about the befuddled hero, off his rocker and off on a quest to subdue the world’s evildoers. And they might recall a bit of the 1965 Broadway musical “Man of La Mancha” (which ran for 2,000-plus nights) and its signature song, “The Impossible Dream.” It began, “To dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe, to bear with unbearable sorrow, to run where the brave dare not go…”
In much the same spirit, the M.I. version of that song begins, “To read the impossible read, to turn the unturnable page, to grin through the grimmest of chapters, to press on as you feel yourself age. …” No kidding. It is a real song, and it debuted at the kick-off event. The complete lyric is online at the M.I. blog (link above).
Though “Mission Impossible” is all about persevering, Sen͂or Quixote would assert there is no great shame in trying but failing to finish. The only shame lies in staying out of the arena. The only impossible read is the one not begun.