Alexander McCall Smith explains why he thinks W H Auden's poetry was peerless in the 20th Century.

Alexander McCall Smith is a best-selling author around the world, and has been translated into more than 40 languages. The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon —the latest book in the much-loved The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series—has recently been published in paperback. His new book The Forever Girl is out in hardback.

The Boys’ Book of Merchant Shipping

When I was five years old this funny little blue book was more precious to me than anything. I read it and read it, looking at the drawings of ships and studying their tonnage and speeds with joy. I slept with it under my pillow. I was so proud to be its owner and I became a very keen reader. It gave rise to my lifelong love of books. Obviously there wasn’t a ship in sight in land-locked Rhodesia—now Zimbabwe—where I was growing up, but that didn’t matter. I loved it.

Collected Shorter Poems By W H Auden

I still remember the moment I took this off the shelf in the library of Queen’s University Belfast, where I was teaching in the early 1970s. What a discovery it was; the start of the greatest literary enthusiasm of my life. Auden uses language so beautifully and explores so many ideas that I felt he was talking directly to me—a marvellous sensation which has never diminished. I’ve learned many lessons from his sympathetic understanding of the world and I carry this collection around with me always. I hope my recent book What W H Auden Can Do for You will encourage appreciation of the man I think is the most engaging poet of the 20th century.

A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction By Christopher Alexander et al

A picked this up by chance around 30 years ago and was immediately won over by its insight into architecture, planning and the spaces around us. It explains why we feel comfortable in one place but not in another. I’ve been aware of, and sensitive to, my environment ever since. Whenever I look at buildings or enter a room I think, What would Christopher Alexander say about this? You can apply his humane principles to any man-made setting, even your own living room. The book really did change the way I look at the world. In fact, I’m going to pen him a letter right now and let him know just that.

Shop Alexander McCall Smith:

The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, £7.99

The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency TV series,  £6.99

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