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10 Quick Questions for LeVar Burton

Beloved ‘Reading Rainbow’ host continues to speak the language of literature


spinner image levar burton sitting and leaning head against right hand; book open in front of him; book case with books behind him
Robyn Von Swank

Actor LeVar Burton, 65, brought literary character Kunta Kinte to life in the 1977 miniseries Roots, and for 23 years, he helped generations of youngsters fall in love with books as the host of the PBS show Reading Rainbow. He now encourages listeners to consume short stories on his podcast, LeVar Burton Reads, and is looking forward to celebrating Kwanzaa with his family.

What are some of your favorite Kwanzaa traditions?

In our family, important occasions are honored on individual altars that we keep. Mine is here in my office, and we’re doing a Day of the Dead altar this year for the family ancestors. So Kwanzaa gets an altar space on the hearth in the living room. Favorite foods of ancestors can be a part of that altar, or just the bounty of the season.

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Are there any particular holiday dishes that you love?

Kwanzaa doesn’t have particularly special dishes for us because it’s all Black Southern comfort food, but with modern touches. Steph, [makeup artist Stephanie Cozart Burton] my wife, who’s an amazing cook, cooks for three days leading up to Thanksgiving. That’s a big holiday for us, Thanksgiving. We [eat well], no matter what the holiday is, Kwanzaa included.

You’re reprising your character Geordi La Forge in the final season of Star Trek: Picard [set to premiere February 2023 on Paramount+]. What is it like to be back on set with your costars?

Absolutely, insanely delicious. We have so much history with one another, and we don’t get an opportunity to do that anymore — to hang out all of us in the same place at the same time. We are family for life. That’s what I believe the audiences are responding to. It’s indescribable because we love each other so much.

Were you a Star Trek fan while growing up?

I was. My mom, my sisters and I watched faithfully. It was around the time when I was beginning to discover science fiction literature as a place to escape. I found a safe space. However, it was a genre that was devoid of heroes who looked like me. [Star Trek creator] Gene Roddenberry had included Black people in his vision of the future, and that meant an enormous lot to me. It’s impossible to form a healthy self-image absent seeing yourself reflected in popular culture. Gene was a trailblazer.

You turned 65 this year. What did you do to mark the occasion?

I was working. Traditionally, I seem to work on my birthday, which I don't mind at all. I enjoy it. We were shooting Star Trek: Picard, so I spent my birthday on the set.

At the start of each podcast, you encourage listeners to take a deep breath. What’s your preferred meditation exercise?

I studied yoga for quite some time. We used to do Kundalini yoga [on set] on the bridge of the Enterprise. My yoga teacher would come and conduct classes at lunchtime, and anybody who wanted to take the yoga classes was always welcome. So breathing and stretching have been a part of my life for a while.

What book do you read again and again?

spinner image levar burton in front of backdrop that says reading rainbow
Burton was the long-time host of the popular PBS show "Reading Rainbow," which took children on literary journeys with celebrity guest readers.
Ben Horton/FilmMagic/Getty Images

A Confederacy of Dunces is a book that I read, and I marvel at how good it is and how it makes me feel. It’s impossible to not feel good reading that book. Because we are recording Season 11 of my podcast now, I'm reading nothing but short stories to prepare for the show.

If you could have dinner with literary figures — alive or not — who would you invite?

[Roots author] Alex Haley, [science fiction author] Octavia Butler and because he was such a great writer as well as public speaker, Martin Luther King [Jr.]. If I could have a fourth, it would be Sidney Poitier, who was also a brilliant, brilliant writer. [He was] one of the most elegant speakers I’ve ever known.

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Do you have a favorite way to consume books?

I love a bound book. I love digital books. I carry a library on my iPad. That’s a miracle to me. And I love audiobooks. I love recording them. I love listening to them.

How often do adults who grew up watching Reading Rainbow approach you to share what the show meant to them?

Every day of my life. It’s quite extraordinary.

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