Listening to LeVar Burton Read

I was first introduced to LeVar Burton when he was the host of a kid’s show called Reading Rainbow. Not actually introduced, I’ve never actually met the man, but I first saw him on this show. As a kid, I had a hard time learning to read but once I did, I loved books. I love them so much, I’ve spent almost my entire life studying them: learning how to write them, how stories work, how to pull meaning from even the smallest sources. I’m in an MFA program now, but I know I wouldn’t be if it weren’t for this man who simply wanted to share his love of reading with the world. 

I wanted to write about LeVar Burton for quite some time now. I slacked off on writing Bad Shakespeare as I got some of my head together, but I’ve actually wanted to write about him since last October, when I went to hear him record a live version of his podcast, aptly titled, “LeVar Burton Reads.” I mean, it’s not the most creative title, but in the long run, it’s one that very few people could have taken. And yes, LeVar Burton is back, this time in podcast form.

My favorite part about the podcast he hosts is that he picks a work of fiction and the only thing they have in common is that “he likes them.” I think that’s important, and it’s a valuable message. He reads fantasy, realistic fiction, Westerns, science fiction… it doesn’t matter. It’s just something he likes. I think that’s a trap we can fall into a little too much sometimes, and not like something just for the sake of liking it. That’s what struck me when I first heard his podcast when started it up a few years ago.

In the past few years I’ve studied in several different programs, as I’ve mentioned. Which means I’m constantly forced to reexamine what’s the “canon” of literature we want to examine. I’ve asked this in my teaching classes: what do we teach kids? I’ve asked this as I’ve studied fiction: Hey, what’s the most important work of fiction to help us become better writers? I’ve even asked this as I’ve studied in my literature classes: What works are the most important for us?

Sometimes, I feel like I’m not as smart as my cohorts in this. They’re an extremely smart group of people, all of them. They can always throw off the name of some brilliant writer and list a million different works that have won more awards than I’ve heard of, and I’m pretty sure a few are made up. I have this theory when you get to a certain level of prestige in the literary world you get to just make up a prize and tell everyone you wrote it. But while I can read them, I have to admit I don’t always “get” it, and I don’t always “get” when something is good. I like comedy, so I’ll throw off something like, Steve Martin’s “An Object of Beauty” which is a good book to me. I like the way it plays with memory to tell a compelling story about when things seem “beautiful” or not. But at the end of the day, it’s a book I just “like.”

Discovering LeVar Burton’s podcast was a reminder to me that sometimes, we just have to like something. Yeah, it may be terrible. But do you like it? I’ve often thrown out my love for all things Nicolas Cage, and that inevitably leads to a discussion of my favorite movie ever, Con Air. Now, no one is going to be clutching an award, claiming Con Air is the greatest movie ever. But I like it. And what’s wrong with that?

One of my favorite quotes is how LeVar Burton signs off each one of his podcasts, which was the same as how he signed off on Reading Rainbow. He says, “but you don’t have to take my word for it.” He tells us that the best thing we can do is go find out for ourselves. I think that’s a positive message more of us need. We’re too quick to judge today, and we’re too quick to hop on some thread or message board and use that s the ultimate excuse for not doing something. But what’s really wrong with finding it out for ourselves? 

The live taping started and ended with people clapping. Clapping for someone who was going to read us a story. There’s something a little bit magical about that to me. Yes, there are a few people there dressed in their finest Starfleet Uniforms, referencing his role as Commander Geordi LaForge in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Turns out LeVar Burton was also responsible for turning me into a Trekie as I followed that guy from Reading Rainbow into the remake (we didn’t call them reboots or sequel series back then, we didn’t know the whole idea was going to work) of that show with Captain Kirk and Spock. And he was blind, but was still going to drive the ship, and eventually, would be responsible for keeping the whole thing running. He did a good job, the ship only blew up a few times. 

LeVar Burton is a remarkable figure to me. He’s a brilliant actor who could have had his pick of roles, who could received acclaim at a young age and could have written his ticket on a million different things. But what he chose was to promote literacy. What he chose was to help us find books and read them not because they were even good, but because we liked them. I could feel that in the Lincoln Theatre a year ago. A bunch of people quiet, just listening to a guy read them a story for no other reason than he liked it.

I thought of ending this post with those famous words. Telling you that you don’t have to take my word for it as a fun little call back to what he’s done. But you know what? I like to read? My dream is not just to write, but to one day promote literacy in a way that would make LeVar Burton proud. So I’m just going to sign off in my own way, by telling you to love what you love, unashamedly. Read something, expose yourself to new ideas, new writers, and make no apologies for what you love. That’s probably the best lesson we could learn.

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