What Famous People Read When They Were Young

By Amy Wallace & Jerry Griswold for Parade Magazine.

ike Holden Caulfield, the teenage protagonist of J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye, most people were inspired by books that they read in their youth. Many say that early adventures in reading helped shape their characters and careers.

Parade has just completed a roundup of famous American’s comments on their childhood reading. Here are some of the results.

President Reagan says of Northern Trails, a nonfiction favorite from his boyhood: “This book planted deep within me a love of the outdoors, wildlife and nature that continues to this day.”

The President confesses that he had to resist an urge to “think of examples of classic literature” while listing his favorite books and then chose, instead, to “come clean.”

Reagan says he was an avid reader as a boy and was reading the newspaper at the age of five. “As I look back,” he observes, “I realize that all my reading left an abiding belief in the triumph of good over evil. There were heroes who lived by standards of morality and fair play.”

RONALD REAGAN

King Arthur: “My reading left me an abiding belief in the triumph of good over evil.”

As a youngster, Reagan says, he had enjoyed King Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory and Frank Merriwell at Yale by Burt L. Standish. The Merriwell book, Reagan recalls, “convinced me that playing football was my goal.” He adds, “Then I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs: not only his Tarzan stories but also his science fiction — John Carter of Mars, The Warlords of Mars and all the John Carter books.”

Gerald Ford and Reagan shared a liking for the rags-to-riches sagas by Horatio Alger. “The book I recall making a deep impression on me,” says Ford, “were the Horatio Alger series.” Love of reading leads to adventure, Ford concludes, but also, “unlocks the doors to business success.”

Richard Nixon says he liked stories about the Revolution, the Civil War and lives of famous men, such as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Jimmy Carter singled out Tolstoy’s War and Peace as his favorite, con­ceding that it had come as something of a shock to him — as a 12-year-old Georgia schoolboy — to discover that the novel was not about cowboys and Indians and that it was,1,400 pages long. Still, Carter says he read it all the way through then and read it two or three times more in later years.

Playwright Neil Simon had a different experience with the same book. “I remember,” he says “attacking War and Peace three or four times, getting bogged down with trying to remember the cast of characters, revitalizing myself with historical novels like (Kenneth) Roberts’ Northwest Passage and with humorous books by Robert Benchley (grandfather of Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws) and by S.J. Perelman, then back to War and Peace — where I finally reached the summit, thoroughly exhausted but exalted.”

The Presidents made careers in politics and in a sense, politics laid the foundation of Alan Alda’s career. The actor, writer, film director and humorist says his interest in politics really blossomed while, at the age of 12, he was pouring over volumes of the Congressional Record.

“For some reason,” says Alda, “leather-bound copies of the goings-on in Congress lined the shelves of our family’s living room. I had never read anything so funny. From then on, I knew that I wanted to do comedy.”

ALAN ALDA

Congressional Record: “From then on, I knew I wanted to do comedy.”

Frank Sinatra’s favorite boyhood book had so much impact upon him that he can still quote its lesson today. The book, The Psychology of Achievement, by Walter B. Pitkin, initially was published in 1930. It is no longer in print, but its message remains clear to Sinatra. “Mr. Pitkin,” says the singer, “pushes his readers into making achievement their goal instead of success. The man who is broke, needs money desperately and wins what he needs in a poker game on Friday night has, by doing so, enjoyed success. He has achieved nothing.”

Both actress-comedienne Carol Burnett and the author Joan Didion remember well a classic novel that evoked strong emotions — and tears — in their girlhoods. Says Burnett, “I cried myself to sleep for weeks after I read The Yearling, by Marjorie K. Rawlings.” Didion recalls having “stayed up one night at my grandmother’s house, reading A Farewell to Arms (by Ernest Hemingway).” Didion adds, “I was 13 or 14 and cried and cried when Catherine died.

Reading added dimension to his view of the world for the author Irving Wallace (Amy Wallace’s father) as a youngster. He says, “When Robinson Crusoe saw those footprints in the sand, I understood the meaning of drama. Having read Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, I wanted to be as much in love as Sydney Carton, and as brave. When I was 14 and secretly read the racy por­tions of Joyce’s banned Ulysses — smuggled to me by an older cousin-I grew up.”

Wallace also cited a childhood favorite The Royal Road to Romance, by Richard Halliburton.

The same book was listed as a favorite of Jack Anderson. “I read most of Halliburton’s books,” says the political columnist. “He was a wandering reporter, and his adventures contributed to my decision to go into journalism.”

JOAN DIDION

A Farewell to Arms: “I was 13 or 14 and cried and cried when Catherine died.”

Frequently, famous people confess to preferring “fun” books to the classics. Julia Child says, “I wish I could say that Plato, Aristotle and other worthies were my fare, but my tastes at that period were for fun and adventure and mystery.” She adds that “kiddie adventure stories were my favorite reading. I read 15 or 20 of the G.A. Henty books (boy and wicked stepmother, boy wins out; boy rescues so-and-so, and so forth).” Other Julia Child favorites were Sherlock Holmes stories and Western sagas by Zane Grey.

Books that they read in their youth have spurred many authors to write books of their own as adults. This has been true of science-fiction writers Ar­thur Clarke (2001 A Space Odyssey) and Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles).

Bradbury tells of being transported to the land of Oz by L. Frank Baum. “By the time I was nine,” he says, “I lived, most of the time, in Emerald City. Mr. Baum taught me how to begin to dream, to fantasize, to have fun with images in my mind.”

RAY BRADBURY

The Wizard of Oz: “It taught me to dream, to fantasize, to have fun with images in my mind.”

Says Clarke of Edgar Rice Burroughs: “His influence has been enormous and is, even now, underrated. A writer who can create the best-known character in the whole of fiction (Tarzan) is not to be ignored.”

For many, remembering the favorite books of youth awakens memories about public libraries. Recollects the author Alex Haley, who says he favored history and adventure stories as a child, “I can remember browsing, up and down, back and forth, studying titles and finally choosing the permitted three books to take home just as I would have selected the flavors of lollipops.”

Former Senator George McGovern recalls the Carnegie Library in Mitchell, South Dakota, as “my treasured and unfailing friend,” and Louis L’Amour, the writer of western adventures, became so enamored of books in great numbers that he now has thousands of his own.“Once one discovers how much fun it can be to read,” L’Amour says, “one’s own life is never dull, and the interest grows with each book. I sit, as I write this, in the midst of an 8,000-volume library of my own, and it is Aladdin’s cave. I can, at will, move into any time in history; I can talk with the great minds of the past, with philosophers, outlaws, cattlemen, adventurers, with kings, queens, and common sailors. It is all here, waiting for me.”

This essay originally appeared Parade Magazine (13 March 1983)and was later excerpted in Reader’s Digest (Sept. 1983). A related essay:

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