Over the past 20 years, filmmaker Ken Burns has become the country’s American history teacher, with his astute documentaries on the Civil War, Mark Twain, baseball, jazz, and the Dust Bowl. Next up is a film on Franklin, Eleanor, and Theodore Roosevelt, which will air next year, followed by one on the Vietnam War.
BOOKS: What are you reading currently?
BURNS: I just completed “Going Clear” by Lawrence Wright, a terrifying, edifying, and fascinating book about Scientology. I took it on vacation and finished it in a big gulp. Wright also wrote “The Looming Tower,” one of the best books about 9/11.
BOOKS: Do you read largely nonfiction?
BURNS: No. I just reread “Any Bitter Thing” by Monica Wood about Maine, the priesthood and false accusations. She’s just written a memoir called “When We Were the Kennedys” about the death of her father. I lost my mom at 11. I recently read that, and it sent me right back to “Any Bitter Thing.” A couple of years ago I read “Lark and Termite” by Jayne Ann Phillips, a wonderfully inventive novel about memory, a complicated family, and the death of someone in the Korean War, which you never hear about. Right now I’m about 20 pages into Timothy Egan’s “The Big Burn.” He wrote “The Worst Hard Time,” which is about the American Dust Bowl, a subject of a recent film of ours. “The Big Burn” is novelistic in its recounting of this amazing forest fire in Idaho and Montana that destroyed hundreds of square miles of forests and killed many people. That’s on the nightstand. You are completely up to date on someone hopelessly lost in the past.
BOOKS: Have you always read a lot of history?
BURNS: Not always. Into my 20s I devoured science fiction. Now I’m rather very bored by it except for J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.”
BOOKS: Have you read something for pleasure that inspired a film?
BURNS: I was visiting my father and had just finished Michael Shaara’s “Killer Angels” on Christmas day during that lazy period when the presents have been opened and the meals eaten. I said, “I know what I’m going to do next. I’m going to do the history of the Civil War.” My dad said, “What part?” I said, “All of it.” He just shook his head like, what an idiot.
BOOKS: Any other Civil War books you’d recommend?
BURNS: I loved Bruce Catton’s “Civil War” and Shelby Foote’s magisterial “The Civil War.” While we were setting up a shot in Shelby’s library the cameraman asked him kind of glibly if he had read all the books. Shelby looked at him with a glare and said, “Yes. Many of them twice and three times.”
BOOKS: Do you read against your projects?
BURNS: It’s very helpful to do that. Also sometimes I reread something I read for work later for pleasure. Right now we’re in the middle of a film on the Vietnam War. To get up to speed I read Karl Marlantes’s “Matterhorn” and Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” Now that I’ve absorbed them professionally, I will go back and read them for pleasure.
BOOKS: What are your favorite Mark Twain books?
BURNS: I don’t have a non-favorite Mark Twain book. “Innocents Abroad” is unbelievably funny. That moment in “Huckleberry Finn” when he doesn’t sell out his friend Jim is the best moment in all of American literature. Some of us are full of superlatives. Good gracious, I am, but he’s simply the greatest writer. He said the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.
BOOKS: What are you reading for your next project?
BURNS: Next up is a documentary on the Roosevelts, so Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “No Ordinary Time,” David McCullough’s “Mornings on Horseback,” and Geoffrey C. Ward’s “A First Class Temperament.” That is magisterial. There, now I’ve used that superlative twice, for Shelby and for Geoff.