“Idle Reader” is the way Cervantes chooses to address his audience at the beginning of the Prologue to Don Quixote, and it points to one of the background social problems of the work. In the early seventeenth century Spain of the novel, most of the characters of any rank are literate. They had time on their hands which, coupled with the printing press, generated for perhaps the first time in human history an enormous appetite for simply entertaining stories. Although Don Quixote comes to have mad ideas about imitating the heroes of the most popular genre of adventure stories, he is not alone in enjoying the hundreds of stories of knights exploits – almost every literate character is as familiar with these stories as Don Quixote himself. Just like today, the most popular stories generated dozens of sequels and spinoffs that were gobbled up.
Which leads to important questions for society and for Don Quixote: what kinds of stories are appropriate for an audience that wants to be entertained, excited, and moved by them, but not too bogged down? And what effect do they have on society itself? What effect does reading simply for entertainment have? Most of the characters instinctively bracket the rich imaginative world of the stories from the real world; they assume they should not have any impact on their ordinary lives. Don Quixote’s madness begins when he, alone of the population, decides to try to live the adventuresome life that has so enthralled him in his stories.
Often the best place to begin reflecting on some deep assumption we all have about the world is to look at when it was not an assumption, when the way of the future was coming to be and the world was changing with it. In ancient and medieval times, literature was assumed to be inspirational. Whatever was greatly moving naturally should contain much that we should imitate. Cervantes saw that world was leaving that view behind, that the imaginative world was here on out going to be simply “entertaining”, something to while away the many idle moments that modern society was making possible. What effect does that have on the character? Cervantes can help us see the need to reflect on that question.