Ronald Reagan’s Childhood Reading

“I’m a sucker for hero worship” (from the New York Times Book Review)

Jerry Griswold

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Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

When politicians are asked which books influenced them, they often find one answer most expedient: the Bible. In fact, this was Ronald Reagan’s reply when The New York Times queried him about his favorite books shortly after he was elected President. But when asked the question in 1977, the then-retired Governor of California responded less predictably.

At that time Reagan was one of 100 notable people that O. Dallas Baillio (director of the Public Library of Mobile, Ala.) asked to name “five books that influenced you as a young adult’’ in the hopes that their responses might inspire other young readers. Miss Lillian wrote that the young Jimmy Carter’s favorite book was “War and Peace’’ (a choice also made by Geraldo Rivera); Barbara Walters mentioned “The Little Prince’’; “Pilgrim’s Progress’’ was chosen by John Sparkman and Oral Roberts (who added “The Call of the Wild’’ and “White Fang’’).

Reagan’s response seems to have been the most candid and detailed of the survey. “I must confess your letter gave me some moments of mixed emotions,’’ Reagan wrote. “There must be a little snob in each of us, because my first reaction was to try to think of examples of classic literature I could list as my favorites in my younger years. None were forthcoming so I decided to ‘come clean.’”

After observing that he has been “an inveterate reader’’ all his life, Reagan lists his favorites as “King Arthur,’’ “Northern Trails,’’ “Frank Merriwell at Yale’’ and Edgar Rice Burroughs — “not only his Tarzan stories, but his science fiction, ‘John Carter Warlord of Mars’ and all the other John Carter books.’’ Then there were “phases’’ when he read Zane Grey, Horatio Alger, Sherlock Holmes, and Twain.

For the most part, he listed just the kind of books a typical 10-or 12-year-old boy growing up in Dixon, Ill., in the 1920’s might be expected to bring home from his twice-weekly visits to the library: historical romances, swashbuckling adventure stories, true-grit boys’ novels. But there is one notable…

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Jerry Griswold

Writer/critic/professor/journalist: children’s literature, culture, film, travel. Seven books, 100's of essays in NY&LA Times.