Ingram Blog

A Conversation with Ken Burns

I had the extraordinary opportunity to speak with historian and filmmaker Ken Burns, whose children’s book Grover Cleveland, Again!: A Treasury of American Presidents publishes this July and is available in hardcoverand library binding. It’s little wonder that his works are treasured by so many people, especially librarians and teachers, since reading and learning were common motifs of the conversation.

In previous interviews, Mr. Burns has discussed his belief that meaning accrues in duration and of the need for sustained attention. In an age of the “disposal present” – social media, instantly downloadable albums rather than waiting for that auspicious Tuesday release date, etc. – people seeking meaning find that in his films. His documentaries reach millions of people. Parts of The Civil War series that he made 26 years ago is, to his understanding, played up to 2,500 times day, including classroom use. He is encouraged by that and, when asked if another children’s book was a possibility, said he would like to do another one in the future.

An admirable trait Mr. Burns would like to see in our new president is the habit of reading. Theodore Roosevelt was a voluminous reader; the more well-read the president is, the better he or she will be. Reading gets you in touch with literature and history; it gets you in touch with the current that has brought human beings to this moment and therefore makes you a better judge of the moment and able to make wiser and more judicious decisions.

We’ve all heard arguments against rote learning and that it has no place in the classroom. Mr. Burns disagrees. He likes the idea of people internalizing information, such as the bedtime ritual he had with his daughters in which they would list the presidents in order (and which inspired Grover Cleveland, Again!). The fact that we can exercise our brain in the process of memorization is a very healthy thing. He explores this further in his film about the male students of The Greenwood School in Vermont. Every year, these boys, who have some type of learning difference, are asked to memorize and recite the Gettysburg Address. There’s also the website LearntheAddress.org where people can not only watch presidents, comedians, politicians, and more recite the Address, but they can also share videos of themselves giving the recitation.

Being a librarian, I was of course very curious about what Ken Burns read as a child and what he reads as an adult. He recalls with fondness the book his father read to him, The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald, which still remains his favorite. The copy that his father had as a boy has been passed down to Ken, his daughters, and now his grandkids. As a busy filmmaker with simultaneous multiple projects, his reading these days is mostly limited to work-related materials, such as histories and biographies. But he does occasionally find himself with some free time to read and recently finished Going Clear and reread Life on the Mississippi.

Mr. Burns’ favorite library moment is an absolute thrill! At The Museum of the Confederacy, he was working on the Civil War series and was just about finished filming the photographs in their collection, but he asked the curator if there were any more. The curator brought out a box of unsorted photographs that were mostly duplicates of ones Burns had already seen or photos that were damaged by light. But, stuck under the bottom flap of the cardboard box, he saw something and pulled out a photograph of Robert E. Lee that he had never seen. He said to the archivist, “I’ve never seen this photograph,” and in reply, he heard the very best words he has ever heard from a librarian: “Neither have I.” Wow, what an exciting moment and discovery I can imagine that was! Burns went on to say that in the photo, Lee had an enigmatic, Mona Lisa-type smile. Most of the pictures of Lee show him as very serious, and here was an image that just slightly pierced the opacity of that seriousness and it gave Mr. Burns something wonderful. And what wonderful things he gives to us, with his films and the companion books he sometimes coauthors, and now with this beautiful, lavishly illustrated children’s book. A must-have for schools, public libraries, and probably very many personal collections.

-Becky Walton (Burns, Ken. Telephone interview. May 6, 2016.)