LeVar Burton Reads, to Adults

The podcast “LeVar Burton Reads” was initially conceived as “Reading Rainbow” for grownups.

Illustration by Linda Huang

“Here’s the thing,” LeVar Burton says at the beginning of the first
episode of his new podcast, “LeVar Burton
Reads,” which made its début in
June. When I listened to it a few weeks ago, he went on, “People have
asked me for years and years and years, when are you going to do a
‘Reading Rainbow’ for adults?” His voice, recognizable from his
memorable acting roles
(“Roots,” “Star Trek:
The Next Generation”) and
from his book-reading juggernaut kids’ show, which ran on PBS for some
two and a half decades, is warm and familiar. In each episode, Burton
reads a piece of short fiction that he has chosen himself, in genres
ranging, he tells us, “from fantasy to mystery to comedy and, of course,
my go-to, science fiction.” (Burton is a lifelong sci-fi enthusiast.)
The show adds music and sound design, much of it fairly subtle, with the
goal of transporting us. It all comes together with genteel
effectiveness. Whether or not you’re transported will depend on your
taste—and, perhaps, on your relationship to LeVar Burton.

“I think a bucket-list item for a lot of millennials is to have LeVar
Burton read them a bedtime story,” Burton says in the first episode. (If
that describes you, you can hear him reading next week, at the Now Hear
This podcast festival, in Manhattan.) I’m
too old to have watched “Reading Rainbow” as a kid, so for me Burton is
not touched with the magic of, say, the “Sesame Street”
grownups or Mr. Rogers. But for
many he is. On iTunes, “LeVar Burton Reads” has more than seventeen
hundred five-star ratings, a mere seventeen four-star ratings, and a
combined total of seven lesser-starred ratings. (“What our world needs
now is LeVar sweet LeVar for everyone!!!” one review says. Another,
titled “Great for babies,” says, “Today I heard your voice telling me a
story, as an adult, and just cried.”) When I’ve asked members of the
“Reading Rainbow” generation about Burton, and told them about the
podcast, I’ve heard gasps, seen clutched chests, and heard people start
singing “Butterfly in the sky / I can go twice as
high.” One man claimed not
to care much about “Reading Rainbow.” Then, quite earnestly and with
some emotion, he told me that as a child he had felt that Burton was the
kind of grownup who, if he were to appear in your classroom, would
listen to you and take you seriously.

“It is remarkable,” Burton told me recently. “I tend to explain it
thusly, so that it makes sense to me. It is my opinion that I have
helped raise these people—and without the normal pain of punishment and
consequences that usually comes with parents.” He laughed—a great,
generous laugh. “So I’m like the good parent in their minds, the
benevolent parent. The one who would never sit them in a corner, never
make them fess up to their mischievous deeds.” Burton has talked about
his own admiration for Fred Rogers, who has a similar role for people of
my generation. “I was a part of their lives when their lives were
idyllic, when they were children and they were just learning about the
world. I was a guide to
opening their world up to
them and giving them a
piece of information that they have used every day for the whole of
their lives: pick up a book and you can go anywhere in the world in your
imagination,” he said. “The world is a place of infinite experience, and
you only have to be exposed to enough of the world before you find your
place in it.” I liked this idea—it could double as an explanation for
why it’s important to go to school, or to travel. “And how important it
is not take anybody’s word for it,” he said. He was referring to the
show’s catchphrase, “But you don’t have to take my word for it!,” a
slogan I had always found odd—after all of that bonding, it seemed to
inspire a bit of doubt. But, of course, its intention is to encourage us
to think for ourselves.

I understand and respect the reverential love that millions feel about
Burton, the benevolent reading parent. But because I didn’t grow up with
him I happen not to share it, and, when it comes to listening to the
podcast, that makes all the difference. For me—an avid audiobook
listener, and a “Reading Rainbow” and “Star Trek” agnostic with deep
admiration for “Roots”—“LeVar Burton Reads” produces a strange
combination of skepticism, mild aversion, and pleasure. Burton’s
literary taste and mine overlap only occasionally (we both love Murakami
and Percival Everett; I’ve never been drawn to science fiction), which,
in one way or another, is likely the case for many listeners. The
podcast’s literary particularity, infused with Burton’s own tastes and
interests, is in many ways one of its strengths—we’re hearing fiction
that we might not ordinarily read, alongside some we might. As a host,
Burton is a bit slick. He sounds focussed; he has the confidence of a
life coach; he guides you through mental preparation before he begins,
as if you were doing guided meditation. His voice envelops you like a
blanket. “Wherever you are—if you’re in your car, at work, at home—take
a deep breath and put yourself in a receptive mood for hearing a good
story,” he says in the first episode. “Are you ready? Here we go.”

As a reader, Burton’s manner is at once wonderful and too wonderful.
His diction is theatrical and precise. He had extensive voice training
in college, which emphasized lingual control, as he memorably told us on
the podcast “Another
Round,”
in mid-August. He sounds a bit like he’s reading to kids, or perhaps to
“Reading Rainbow” kids who have grown up. When I asked Burton how he
approaches reading to kids versus reading to adults, he said, “It’s the
same.” Then he thought about it. “It’s the material that really drives
the performance,” he said. The performance is bigger when you’re reading
for kids, he went on, and there are no pictures to show to adults. “But
I try to read it like I would love to hear it being read to me.”

The result is enthusiastic but, to my ears, distracting. He makes
everything sound so special that you’re not sure what’s actually
special. (“Joshua searched his father’s face for the answer.”) He
offers a brief introduction before each story and some commentary
immediately afterward. “Everybody, no matter who you are—if you’re in a
relationship, you’ve got secrets,” he says at the beginning of the
Murakami episode. This is the kind of remark that might make you turn
your head and look at your speaker. He breathes in and out, loudly and
deeply, and begins “The Second Bakery Attack.” For me, Burton reads
Murakami, whose tone is a miracle of understated strangeness and dry
wit, with a bit too much Burtonian flair. “I’m still not sure I made
the right choice when I told my wife about the bakery attack,” he
reads.

The first season is sponsored by Audible, the Amazon-owned audiobook
company, whose ads Burton presents so smoothly at the beginning of each
episode, for products so close to what he’s offering us on the
podcast—literature, read aloud—that for a while I assumed that the
podcast was made by Audible. (Audible is beginning to offer podcasts.)
But it isn’t—it’s produced by Stitcher. Ads on most other podcasts are
so nerdily homespun—think Marc Maron enthusing about the joys of making
your own stamps—that they can evoke a 2017 version of old-time TV or
radio. But the combination of Audible and “LeVar Burton Reads” is so
seamless that it’s almost unnerving. It reminded me of “Sesame Street”
’s early, brilliant idea of selling literacy to children—of making
learning as entertaining and fun as pop-culture television. “Reading
Rainbow” had that quality, too. But eager salesmanship about the wonders
of reading, altruistic at the library or on PBS or NPR, feels different
in the world of commerce.

Since the cancellation of “Reading Rainbow,” in 2006, which Burton has
attributed to budget cuts related to No Child Left
Behind,
managing its legacy has been complicated for him and the
public-television station WNED, of Buffalo. Adjusting to the digital
landscape has been complex, and in a space beyond public television the
boundaries between altruism and commerce have blurred. Originally,
Burton and WNED agreed to share the profits from “Reading Rainbow”
projects that Burton would create. In 2012, Burton’s company RRKIDZ
launched a “Reading Rainbow”
app,
downloadable for free and offering various paid-subscription plans. In
2014, he and RRKIDZ launched a
Kickstarter to fund bringing the app to a Web-based platform. The effort made
headlines, went viral, and raised a million dollars in less than twelve
hours. It went on to raise $6.5 million, a million of it from the
“Family Guy” creator, Seth MacFarlane.

Eventually, relations between Burton and WNED frayed. “LeVar Burton
Reads” is not branded as a “Reading Rainbow” or
public-television-affiliated show, and I was surprised to hear his “
‘Reading Rainbow’ for adults” phrasing, and his “Reading Rainbow”
catchphrase, “But you don’t have to take my word for it,” as his
signoff on each episode. In early August, WNED filed a lawsuit about his
linking the podcast to “Reading Rainbow,” including by using his
catchphrase. “Mr. Burton’s goal is to control and reap the benefits
of Reading Rainbow’s substantial goodwill—goodwill that unquestionably
belongs to WNED,” the lawsuit says. For a couple of days, the story was
all over the Internet. In mid-August, when Burton appeared on “Another
Round,” he said, cheerfully, “I’m giving the ‘Reading Rainbow’ brand
back to WNED.” When I streamed the first episode’s introduction again,
this week, I was startled to hear that it no longer mentions “Reading
Rainbow.” “Here’s the thing,” Burton now says. “People have asked me for
years and years, when are you going to do content for adults?”

I asked Burton about the lawsuit—whether he was going to distance
himself from the “Reading Rainbow” brand, whether he would keep using
his catchphrase. “I can say this,” he said. “I’m very happy with the
way the legal situation has turned out. And I’m very grateful to all of
the fans who made their support very well known on the issue of the
lawsuit. And I wish WNED well! But—” He paused. “You don’t have to
take—my word for it.” He laughed heartily, and so did I—mostly in
surprise.

Yesterday, Burton tweeted that the latest episode was the show’s
“penultimate.” His followers freaked out and began tweeting devastated
gifs from “The Big Bang Theory” and “SpongeBob SquarePants.” (Others
tweeted that the story he’d read in that episode, “The Paper Menagerie”
by Ken Liu, had made them cry.) Burton had meant the penultimate episode
of the season, he told me—“I ran out of characters!”—but, though he
intends to make a second season, he isn’t yet sure about the details.
“We don’t know who might sponsor it or for how long, but I can safely
say at this point that there will be more episodes of LeVar Burton,” he
told me.

In closing, he turned serious again, and sounded sincere. “It has been
kind of overwhelming, the response to the podcast,” he said. “And it
really does prove what we’ve all known our entire lives—that we all love
to be read to. And what a basic joy that is for human beings. And boy am
I glad that we have that opportunity to read to one another, and be read
to. It really does bring us closer together.” He paused. “And in the
world we’re living in today, that ain’t such a bad thing.”

Sourse: newyorker.com