Here in 2015, it’s not uncommon to find that in a class of first-year college students none of them can remember having read a book. Or if they can, they can’t now remember the title or what the book was about.
As a card-carrying curmudgeon, I can officially rail against the mind-numbing illiteracy of the younger generation. “Illiterate” may seem too strong a word; surely they can read even if they don’t. Still, as Mark Twain notes, the person who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the person who can’t.
But truth to tell, at 18 I was no different. I read only one book as a teenager (but I did read it twice, if that counts). But I was not what you’d call a reader. That’s why I graduated high school by a hair.
I became a reader by accident.
In 1973, I was 21, a seaman in the U.S. Navy, and out in the middle of the Atlantic aboard a Navy destroyer. Looking around the ship for something to read, just to take up the slack hours at sea, I came across a copy of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. I began reading more out of curiosity than any genuine interest.
But then I found myself interested in the plot, which involves a bunch of fairies and magic. What interested me was why this play had fairies at all. I thought that “serious writing” was supposed to be about real life. Surely this guy Shakespeare was a grown-up and didn’t believe in fairies any more than I did.
So that was the question that drove my reading. Why fairies?
Readers who know the play will remember the plot: a young man and woman fall in love, but her father wants her to marry another guy. The other guy, however, has already slept with another woman, who is still madly in love with him.
So the first young woman and her young man go running off into the woods, hoping to get to another town where they can marry without her father’s consent. When the other guy finds out about their plan, he goes after them. And when the other woman finds out he’s going after them, she goes after him.
In the dark woods, it all gets very confusing very fast, and that’s intentional. As evening comes on, the first couple decides to bed down for the night. This is where the action picks up.
The young man wants them to sleep together and gives her the old “we’re one in heart, one in spirit; so we may as well be one in body” argument. But she’s not buying it until after the wedding and makes him sleep on the other side of the stage.
After they go to sleep, the fairy Puck comes on the scene and can’t imagine why in the world this healthy young man isn’t sleeping with this woman.
(A fairy, Puck has no sense of human morality—kind of like a college frat boy.)
To help the young man get with the program, Puck sprinkles magic love juice on his eyes so he will fall madly in love with the first woman he sees when he wakes up.
After Puck leaves, however, the other woman comes traipsing through the woods, having lost the trail of the other man, and she trips over this young man and wakes him up. He sees her, falls madly in love, and goes chasing after her, leaving the woman he really loves sleeping alone in the dark woods.
So you tell me: a young man, unable to sleep with the woman he loves, goes to sleep feeling “amorous,” and then, in the middle of the night, goes chasing after some other woman. Does that sound like magic?
It sounded like real life to me. The magic was happening there in the middle of the Atlantic, when a very unliterary young man from blue-collar New Jersey found himself falling in love with Shakespeare and a world of poetry where writers explored such things as how love and desire drive our imaginations.
Love and desire: two things the young man on the destroyer knew something about.
• Jim Hale would like to hear about your first or favorite reading experience. Contact him through his website at www.jimhalewriting.com