For some people The Art of War is a touchstone. A guide to living and to life. For others it is Tao Te Ching or even The Tao of Pooh. In his latest book, number one detective Alexander McCall Smith has an admission to make: his own personal touchstone is Anglo-American poet W.H. Auden.
“I believe that reading the work of W.H. Auden may make a difference to one’s life,” Smith writes early in What W.H. Auden Can Do For You (Princeton), then spends the balance of the book convincing us. (In case we should need convincing.) But he does it gently, persuasively and even conversationally. “This is what Auden has meant to me,” he seems to be saying. “See what he, also, can mean to you.”
If you are a fan of Auden’s work, this is a must-read. If you have interest in it — because of Four Weddings and a Funeral or for any other reason — you would be well-advised to pick up this slender volume.
What W.H. Auden Can Do For You is the latest in a series from Princeton University Press. Others have been C.K. Williams On Whitman, Michael Dirda on Conan Doyle and Phillip Lopate on Sontag. According to the Princeton web site, the series is intended to be comprised of “brief, personal, and creative books in which leading contemporary writers take the measure of other important writers (past or present) who have inspired, influenced, fascinated, or troubled them in significant ways. These books illuminate the complex and sometimes fraught relationships between writers, while also revealing the close ties between creative and critical writing.”
In What W.H. Auden Can Do For You, historian, mystery writer and philosopher McCall Smith nails it on every count. ◊
Jones Atwater is a regular contributor to January Magazine.