With an illustrious body of work encompassing subjects as diverse as baseball, jazz, and the National Parks, Ken Burns stands as an icon of American documentary filmmaking, and something of a custodian of the nation’s collective memory. Born in Brooklyn in 1953, his films and television series are marked by their meticulous research, immersive storytelling, and dedication to historical and cultural preservation.
Burns’ magnum opus, 1990’s 11-hour docuseries The Civil War, remains a watershed moment in TV history, captivating millions with its profound examination of the American Civil War. His distinctive narrative technique, now known as the “Ken Burns Effect,” integrates still photographs with slow zooms and pans, and has since become emblematic of his work. In an extensive oeuvre covering art, mass media, sports, political history, music, and literature, he’s significantly shaped the way history is conveyed to the public.
A voracious reader, Burns reflected on the books that shaped 2007’s The War, a 15-hour deep dive on the American experience of World War II, in a reading list for The Week. From the first-hand accounts of teenage soldiers to an overview by esteemed historian Donald L. Miller, explore his recommendations below. To learn more about his approach to research and historical storytelling, check out his Masterclass on documentary filmmaking.
Ken Burns’ Reading List
With the Old Breed by E.B. Sledge
“The single best memoir I’ve read about World War II. Gripping, difficult, honest, and horrific. Sledge fought at Peleliu and Okinawa, two of the worst places you’d ever want to be during the war. Years later, he had a nervous breakdown. His wife urged him to write down his experiences, and the exercise really helped save him, as it does so many soldiers beset by the demons of war.” -KB
The Soldiers’ Tale by Samuel Hynes
“A Marine pilot who flew more than 100 missions out of Okinawa, Sam is now a professor emeritus at Princeton. He’s the first talking head you see in our film, and the first thing he says is, ‘There’s no such thing as a good war, there are only necessary wars.’ The same kinds of literate observations fill The Soldiers’ Tale.” -KB
Flights of Passage by Samuel Hynes
“If The Soldiers’ Tale gives you a sense of Sam’s reflective side, Flights of Passage gives you a sense of his goodness. It begins as a young man heads to a Minneapolis recruiting station, and becomes his story about learning to be a soldier. It really teaches you stuff. A wonderful book.” -KB
The Boys’ Crusade by Paul Fussell
“Fussell was an infantryman in Western Europe, where the average life expectancy on the line was 17 days. He survived six months before being severely wounded. His intimate, moment-to-moment memoir is filled with the kinds of things you can’t believe a 19-year-old has ever seen.” -KB
Wartime by Paul Fussell
“As a 19-year-old, Fussell was good at killing other people, and what that allowed him to do was provide the rest of us with some of the most searing observations about war I’ve ever come across. Like Sam Hynes, he’s now a professor. Wartime is a partly personal, partly scholarly look at battlefield realities.” -KB
The Story of World War II by Donald L. Miller
“Whenever you do a film, there’s always a book that you want in your hip pocket to settle all questions. The Story of World War II was that book.” -KB
(via The Week; photo by Chris Pizzello)
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