How Books Inspired Some of the World’s Most Prominent People

UPDATED: May 22, 2023
PUBLISHED: November 7, 2017

“At that moment, a lone Bedouin in flowing robes rode his camel to the base of Menkaure’s pyramid and stared up at me. He patiently waited for me to descend, before offering me a ride on his camel. The cover of The Encyclopedia of World Travel had come to life.

“It took my breath away.

“Since that moment in Egypt, I have never doubted the power of words and imagery.”

Related: Read All the Books to Rise Above the Ordinary

The World Is Just a Book Away is an anthology that captures the stories of how books and reading inspired some of the world’s most prominent people. Recognizing the life-changing nature of reading, James J. Owens set out in 2002 to create this deeply moving book. At first glance, the contributors to this anthology may not seem to have much in common, yet they all share a love of books and reading. This book takes readers on a unique journey through personal stories from five Nobel Peace Prize laureates, actors, royalty, world leaders, scientists, humanitarians and many more.

drkeithblack.jpg1. Keith Black

“I felt excitement and clarity about what I wanted to do in my life that was, in hindsight, astonishing given my relative youth when I read the book.”



danielellsberg.jpg2. Daniel Ellsberg

“I would be happy if the words I read aloud that morning in 2004, after my own short night in jail, reached the hearts of some young listeners and changed their lives as they had mine, a quarter-century earlier.”



Jane Goodall3. Jane Goodall

“Sometimes I don’t know how the ceilings stand the weight of all those books, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.”




Marie Elizabeth Haist4. Marie Elizabeth Haist

“I am 91 years old as I write this, but I am still young at heart and I can tell you that fairy tales really can come true.”




5. Jenny Ming

“I believe that books travel with us through life.”




Liam Neeson6. Liam Neeson

“He looks at a river and thinks, ‘Shall I cast my line here or shall I cast it there?’ Just in that decision he seems to describe the state of the human soul.”



drsherwoodrowland.jpg7. F. Sherwood Rowland

“My most enduring nonprofessional interest, however, has been in both factual history and historical fiction and, as I’ve grown older, I’ve gone back further in time.”



Martin Scorsese8. Martin Scorsese

“At other times, he gives us an adventure novel. Then, a patch of philosophizing. Then, a little documentary about how things work.”




Lily Tuck9. Lily Tuck

“My life as a child was fairly solitary—hard to make friends if you cannot communicate—but it was not unhappy. I had books.”




Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu10. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu

“He let me consume comics omnivorously because he realized that it would help to instill a love of reading.”

Related: 7 Books Everyone Should Read



The World Is Just a Book Away


Excerpted from The World Is Just a Book Away, edited by James J. Owens (November 2017, USC Libraries Press)

James J. Owens is a professor of management communication at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business. He is founder and CEO of the charity The World Is Just a Book Away (WIJABA), which promotes children’s literacy internationally by developing libraries and educational programs. Since its inception in 2008, WIJABA has touched the lives of more than 70,000 children. James collected and edited the 60 essays in this book over the course of 15 years. His profit from this book will benefit the charity. James is also a writer and a speaker. He lives with his son Alexander in Santa Monica, California.