Renowned surgeon, author and Yale Corporation member Benjamin Carson ’73 spoke about the rewards of reading and the importance of strong moral values to a group of about 600 people Saturday.

The crowd included New Haven residents and about 75 members of Carson’s newly established book club.

Carson spoke about his childhood, explaining that for many years he lived in poverty and earned poor grades in school, where he was known as “the dummy.” Because he learned to love reading, he said, he gained a greater appreciation for the material he learned in school. His academic success later brought him to Yale and eventually to his current position as head of pediatric neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.

Carson founded the Ben Carson Book Club, which is open to all New Haven Public School students in second through sixth grades, to promote and develop good reading habits. Club members earn points that can be exchanged for prizes. Each member also receives a copy of Carson’s autobiography, “Gifted Hands.”

In addition to creating the book club, Carson and his wife established a scholarship program for students in fourth through twelfth grades. Recipients each win a $1,000 scholarship, a trophy and the opportunity to attend a banquet.

During his speech, Carson said his mother, distressed at his childhood academic struggles, decided to make him read books instead of allowing him to watch television. He said this rule that seemed to him “the most unfair, unjust thing in the world.”

But Carson said the books soon began to interest him, and his spelling and grammar improved dramatically. He said reading helped him cope with his difficult circumstances.

“The poverty, all of a sudden, didn’t mean much to be because between the covers of those books, I could go anywhere,” Carson said.

Carson said within the course of one year, he went from the bottom of the class to the top. He encouraged the students in the audience to be intrepid, follow their dreams, maintain strong moral values, and “THINK BIG” — the motto of his book club. He said academics are crucial for a person’s success.

“It is more important to be able to solve a quadratic equation than it is to make a 25-foot jump shot,” Carson said.

Carson said he has often turned to his religious beliefs for support in difficult times, and he encouraged the audience members to take the same approach.

“I have tremendous faith in God, and I know he won’t get me into anything he can’t get me out of,” he said.

Ari Glogower ’05 attended the speech and said he found Carson’s story “phenomenal,” but he said the inspiring message was tainted by the uniqueness of Carson’s success.

“The whole speech just drove home how disheartening it was that his situation is the exception and not the rule,” Glogower said.

Yale President Richard Levin said Carson’s story was inspirational.

“He’s an extraordinary man,” Levin said. “He is a wonderful example to young people and he conveys through his whole person a model of how one might seize opportunities [to achieve goals] that many may regard as improbable.”