The former Reading Rainbow host tells EW about his new book club and his journey as a lover of literature.

By Tyler Aquilina
May 11, 2021 at 10:45 AM EDT
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To put it in terms he himself would not use, reading is LeVar Burton's brand. It's been almost 40 years since he started introducing young viewers to the joys of books as the host of Reading Rainbow, and he's still reading aloud to anyone who will listen (including many who grew up on the PBS show). When the pandemic shutdown began, he hosted thrice-weekly livestreams reading stories to his Twitter followers and has done the same on his podcast LeVar Burton Reads since 2017. To talk to him about reading is, in many ways, to talk to him about himself. So perhaps the most surprising thing about his new book club is that it hasn't existed until now.

The LeVar Burton Book Club launches Tuesday via the "social reading app" Fable, with selections handpicked by the actor. To start off, he's chosen three books that "represent how my identity as a reader has been shaped," he says: James Baldwin's semi-autobiographical novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, Octavia Butler's modern sci-fi classic Parable of the Sower, and the essay and poetry collection The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward. (Baldwin's book will serve as the first month's pick, with three new titles being revealed every three months.)

LeVar Burton
LeVar Burton reads. It's what he does.
| Credit: Michael Tullberg/Getty Images

"For me, if I'm going to start a book club, I'm going to begin with who I am and my story as a reader," Burton tells EW. "Obviously, there are hundreds of books that have shaped my identity as a reader, and these three are really representative of an important aspect of that journey for me."

And while all three are by Black authors, Burton takes care to emphasize that to view his book club as an exclusively Black book club "does me and the literature that I promote a great disservice."

"I know I have demonstrated over time that my attitude towards literature is ecumenical," he says. "As it happens, the first three books are by people who look like me, and if one wants to pigeonhole that, then that would be, in my estimation, their shortcoming. It's nothing more than a starting point that reflects who I am."

Ahead of the launch, the former Star Trek actor and future Jeopardy guest host spoke to EW about starting the book club, why reading has always meant so much to him, and why it made sense to kick off the club with James Baldwin's "origin story."

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I guess my first question is, what took so long to start a LeVar Burton Book Club? It seems like such a no-brainer.

LEVAR BURTON: You're right, and the obviousness of it hadn't escaped me. [Laughs] I was just looking for the right platform. And it wasn't until Fable was created that I saw an opportunity to gather together those who wanted to be a part of the LeVar Burton Book Club, in an environment that gave me the access to my audience in a way that was able to engage them in a successful exploration of the literature that I chose for us all to read.

I don't think that Fable could have been created until now, where we have the convergence of technology, access to one another through technology, and the realization that we live in a very stressful society, and that reading has been proven to be a valuable component in the promotion of mental health. As it turns out, we have discovered that reading is good for us. [Laughs] And the proof that communal reading is successful had always been there. The new thing is the vessel that they have created for that community.

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LeVar Burton on 'Reading Rainbow.'
| Credit: PBS

You've been an advocate for reading and literacy for such a long time. Where did that passion for reading come from?

I feel like I come by this passion honestly. My mother was an English teacher. Her example and her insistence that reading, and the written word, be a consistent part of our lives when my sisters and I were growing up, not only shaped my attitude towards reading but really fostered a discovery of worlds that were inaccessible to me previously.

In addition, she also stressed the importance of education as the tool that I would need in my life to compete on a level playing field with what I refer to as my melanin-challenged brethren and sistren. One of the vestiges of chattel slavery and the amount of pain, suffering, and damage it has done to the Black community is a concentrated lack of focus on the education of the Black community. It has only been by a tremendous display of will and willingness to sacrifice almost everything to have that educational foundation as a part of the lives of generation after generation of Black Americans.

And so, in promoting education, I feel like I am doing what is within my power to mitigate those generations of damage. I definitely believe in doing what one can from where one is, and in becoming a celebrity, I instantly had an opportunity of influence, and my choice was to promote those values that were so firmly ingrained in me.

Why did you choose these particular books as the first three selections for your book club?

I chose these books as my first three out of a personal affinity for the writers and the reading that I'm asking my book club members to do. James Baldwin is a fundamental figure in my literary awakening, and this book is — what do they call it in comics? — his origin story. [Laughs] In my view, if you're going to be introduced to Baldwin, or engage with Baldwin, it makes sense to begin with his origin story because it informs everything that he brought to the world of the written word.

LeVar Burton
Credit: Vintage; Grand Central Publishing; Scribner

Octavia Butler is a foundational figure in my love for science fiction, simply because when I was growing up and reading science fiction, there weren't any heroes in those novels who looked like me. Octavia Butler created worlds of Black people in the future, and that is a distinction that I think isn't lost on a lot of people. She represents an opening up and a new era in speculative literature. But, again, on a personal level, her inspiration to me has been foundational in my continuing appreciation for the genre.

And then, one of Baldwin's early books is The Fire Next Time. By its very title, The Fire This Time is an answer to that idea. And the essays and the pieces that Jesmyn has compiled are equally informative, illustrative, and enlightening of the Black experience in America.

Do you have any idea which books you'll be choosing next?

Oh, why would I reveal those? [Laughs] Nice try.

What would you say you're ultimately trying to achieve with this book club?

First and foremost, community, based around a theme that is common to our lives, those who would be inclined to be a part of the LeVar Burton Book Club, which is a continuing expansion of our worldview. And this gives me an opportunity, as I did with Reading Rainbow and as I currently do with LeVar Burton Reads, to continue to introduce my audience to new authors in the service of widening our perspectives. I couldn't ask for anything more.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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