Jim Fleming began his career with Wisconsin Public Radio in 1968 as a volunteer while completing his undergraduate English degree at UW-Madison. Fleming has made substantial contributions to public radio since then by producing several award-winning projects, such as the 1974—1975 national radio drama project Earplay, hosting classical music programs like Morning Classics, and holding various WPR management positions including music director and associate director/program manager. Fleming is perhaps best known as host/producer of To The Best of Our Knowledge and as a regular reader for Chapter a Day, a post he held for three decades until his recent retirement in December of 2009.
I've been asked before to write about things like this, and I remember then as now the strong temptation to pretend I only read books that are really good for me. Somehow, I could pretend they would be good for you, too. But, I think the secret would out, as they say, pretty quickly.
I love to read. It's safe to say I've read thousands of books by now: books for pleasure and for work, and some that qualify as both. For instance, a copy of The Wine-Dark Sea by Patrick O'Brian came through the mail at work one day, and a few hours later I discovered I was finished with it. I interviewed O'Brian shortly thereafter, but what I really wanted was to read the rest of the wonderful historical novels in the Aubrey/Maturin series. I did, and I've read several of them more than once since then. The man can write. I had the same sort of reaction to the Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies.
Of course, I worry about some works not living up to my memory of them. I recently picked up a copy of Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose somewhat reluctantly but was overjoyed to discover it was just as compelling today as it was the first time I read it thirty years ago. This novel about marriage that works—and marriage that doesn't—integrates past and present through Stegner's extraordinary prose, and should work as well now as it did when it won the Pulitzer prize in 1972. Apparently it isn't only Dickens who can write fiction that lasts.
Dancing at the Rascal Fair by Ivan Doig is another of those books about the American West that I have read three or four times. It's part of a series of books about the McCaskill Family in Montana. While several of them are enjoyable, this is the one I like the best and keep coming back to. I've done it for Wisconsin Public Radio's Chapter a Day, along with English Creek, Ride With Me, and a couple of others.
The first book I remember reading for Chapter was Judith Guest's Ordinary People. I had just finished my alternate service as a conscientious objector working as a psychiatric aide for a couple of years and her story of an ordinary family's response to an extraordinary tragedy resonated with me deeply. I thought—and still think—Guest is a good writer, but I've never liked anything else of hers as much.
The Billy Collins collection Sailing Alone Around the Room sits on my bedside table and there's a copy in my Kindle as well. I was happy to meet Billy Collins when he was poet in residence at Beloit College, and have heard him perform on A Prairie Home Companion. But what makes this book special for me is a poem called "The Dead," which I read when my father died. In the last line there is an image that continues to give me great comfort today.
There are several Wisconsin books I truly like and must mention, including The Land Remembers: A Story of a Farm and Its People by Ben Logan and Notes from Little Lakes: The Story of a Family and Fifteen Lakes by Mel Ellis. I keep them and read them again and again because I enjoy the connection to the state I love.
I feel like I've barely started, but I'm already well past five. Oh well, reading is life.