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BOOK ERIC BURNS

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Eric Burns

Eric BurnsSpecialties: American history, journalism
Home base: New York City

Eric Burns is the only nonacademic ever to have won the American Library Association’s top award, the “Best of the Best,” twice. The two books that earned him the distinction are The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol (2004) and The Smoke of the Gods: A Social History of Tobacco (2007). Those volumes, and his others, have received rave notices from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Sun-Times, Los Angeles Times and Vanity Fair, among other newspapers and magazines. His most recent book is Someone to Watch Over MeSomeone to Watch Over Me: A Portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt and the Tortured Father Who Shaped Her Life (Pegasus Books, March 2017). Burns’s speciality is bringing history to life, writing it from a unique and often witty perspective. As The Wall Street Journal said of him, “Burns delivers history with flair and vividness.”

And he does so not just as an author, but as a speaker. On The Daily Show, he and Jon Stewart talked (and laughed) their way through an interview on Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism. Early in 2016, C-SPAN devoted three hours to a discussion about Burns’s literary life, “In-Depth With Eric Burns.” Several other televised interviews with Burns can be found online, and prove that he is a speaker of uncommon knowledge, dry humor and ease with an audience.

In addition to his being selected as one of the best writers in the history of broadcast journalism, Burns is also won an Emmy Award category for “Television news commentary.” At NBC, he was a part-time anchor of NBC News Update and the Today show, as well as one of the creators of the latter’s “Cross-Country” segment. The program he hosted for a decade for the Fox News Channel, Fox News Watch, was one of only two programs on the entire network worth watching, according to Vanity Fair.

Mid-Strut, his first play, not only won the Eudora Welty Emerging Playwrights Competition, but its “world premiere” at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in 2012 was acclaimed by National Public Radio. His second work for the stage, Rise and Fall, goes into production in 2017.

Suggested Topics

  • The Spirits of America
    The history of alcohol---as a means of reaching the gods, of medicinal use and of political campaigning during the colonial era (when, although astonishing to contemplate, Americans probably drank more than ever before or since). The lecture concludes with an examination of the unparalleled success of America’s first lobbying group, the Anti-Saloon League, in bringing about Prohibition, despite the fact that a majority of Americans opposed the measure.

  • The Smoke of the Gods
    The history of tobacco has many similarities to that of alcohol, including its beginnings as a religious artifact and medicine. This intriguing talk tells how tobacco “saved” America from extinction; had it not been for “the weed,” what is today the United States might have begun life as a colonial outpost of France, Spain or Portugal, rather than England. In the 19th century, the evolution of tobacco into such new forms as snuff, “chaw” and cigarettes (originally a smoke for sissies or “street people”) provides fascinating social and political insights.

  • Infamous Scribblers
    More surprises in American history, “Infamous Scribblers” has less to do with journalism than it does with raging political animosities. We think of the Founding Fathers as a group united in purpose, and for the most part they were. But conflicts inevitably developed, and newspapers were the vehicle for expressing them. The vileness of the language astonishes, as does the underhandedness of the methods. In fact, journalism was far less civil, honest and trustworthy then than it is today, and Thomas Jefferson---of all people!---was one of its principal mal-practitioners.

  • The Life and Times of the Serious Reader
    A particular favorite of book clubs, this talk describes in compelling detail the struggles of the avid reader in an era that prizes technology gimcrackery. Burns’s thoughts on the subject are personal and original, witty and probing. His descriptions of the traits of the serious reader will delight all who may be so described, and his predictions for the future of books is a rallying cry for serious readers to become even more serious.

  • Invasion of the Mind-Snatchers
    A history of the 1950s as seen through the Cyclopean eye of television. At the beginning of the decade, one in ten American homes had a TV set. By the decade’s end, nine in ten did, and most Americans learned most of what they knew of this turbulent decade through the new medium. In this talk, Burns presents insight after insight on how television portrayed, and influenced, politics, civil rights, women’s rights and organized religion. In addition, he explains why television’s two main inventors damned their creation in the era of its greatest popularity.