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What W. H. Auden Can Do for You

3.53  ·  Rating details ·  351 Ratings  ·  84 Reviews
When facing a moral dilemma, Isabel Dalhousie — Edinburgh philosopher, amateur detective, and title character of a series of novels by best-selling author Alexander McCall Smith — often refers to the great twentieth-century poet W. H. Auden. This is no accident: McCall Smith has long been fascinated by Auden. Indeed, the novelist, best known for his No. 1 Ladies Detective ...more
Hardcover, 137 pages
Published September 29th 2013 by Princeton University Press (first published January 1st 2013)
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How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

My association with W.H. Auden and his literary output has been restricted to the occasional browsing through which gave rise to a somewhat fickle love for Lullaby (which I couldn't help but read more than once) and As I walked Out One Evening. But somehow the lines faded away from memory as soon as I closed the browser window, sometimes mer
Jean Poulos
This book was published in September of 2013 on the 40th anniversary of the death of Auden. Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-1973), an English poet, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1948, the Bollingen Prize in 1954 and many more awards over the years.

Smith tells about how he discovered Auden’s poetry when he was working at Queen’s University in Belfast. After he returned to Edinburgh, he went to a public reading by Auden in George Square. Smith goes on to tell about Auden and his poetry. Smith state
Jacki (Julia Flyte)
Aug 25, 2013 rated it liked it
Alexander McCall Smith has long been fascinated by the poetry - and life - of W H Auden. One of his main characters, Isabel Dalhousie, is a devotee of the poet, while another, Mma Ramotswe, also shares his views on life. As McCall Smith explains, he has "learned so much from this poet. I have bathed in the richness of his language. I have wept over some of his lines. He can be with us in every part of our lives, showing us how rich life can be, and how precious". In this short book, McCall Smith ...more
Sep 09, 2013 rated it it was amazing
No surprise that a book by this author is charming, but it is also more. Drawn to this book by curiosity, I feel better after reading it, and can't help feeling as if I am better for having read it, and immediately recommended it to my husband, and now I am recommending it to you, too.

I'm sure you can read the blurb and decide for yourself if it is not your cup of tea, but if you have any curiosity about it at all, I think you will find it worth your while.
Alex Diaz
Dec 10, 2013 rated it did not like it
I love W.H. Auden. I find his poetry to be some of the most moving and current in the collective oeuvre of Western Poetry – which is why I found this book so resoundingly disappointing. I can admit that Auden is a hard topic to write on, seeing as there are likely a small library’s worth of books written about him and his poetry. Still, it takes a remarkable ego to make a book about Auden that’s actually a book about “things I find interesting and I’m convinced Auden would have agreed with, but ...more
Ron Johnson
Feb 28, 2014 rated it liked it
I have never been a huge fan of books that analyze poetry. They tend to drain the beauty and humanity from the very poems they set out to make more approachable for the reader. For this reason, I was especially excited to read a poem about Auden by one of my favorite authors.
As it turns out, I would definitely recommend this book to a person who wants to get a very personal, warm sense of what can be gained by reading Auden's poetry. On the other hand, I would say that Smith does an even better
Jul 24, 2013 rated it liked it
What unfortunately prevented me to fully enjoy this book is the total lack of information on my part about Auden, which, however, are largely provided by the book, but of course now I'm a bit more interested not so much on hes life, but rather on his work, almost entirely unknown to me, but for what little I have read here is really worth.

Quello che purtroppo mi ha impedito di godere appieno di questo libro é la totale mancanza di informazioni da parte mia su Auden, che comunque vengono in larga
Dec 02, 2013 rated it really liked it
This book is heartfelt and pleasant to read - a reviewer in The Wall Street Journal panned it, but I think he missed the point entirely. McCall Smith does not present himself as a scholar of Auden, but as an appreciative reader of Auden, and there is a big difference between the two. In my view, knowing WHY someone loves a writer is just as important as a scholarly analysis of that writer. At any rate, who cuddles up with a book of scholarly analysis on a snowy day? Not this reader.

Only downsid
Nov 15, 2013 rated it liked it
i've read pretty much everything this author has written (except medical law textbooks!) so in spite of not being a huge poetry fan (my own fault entirely for not making the effort), i had to give this a try. also, i was going to a lecture related to the book and i didn't want to be completely in the dark. i enjoyed both book and lecture but did not find myself rushing out to purchase tomes of auden's work. however, coincidentally enough, the v. next day, i did get a new task at work of reorgani ...more
Sep 08, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
I cannot say it better than Edward Mendelson, an Auden expert:

"Alexander McCall Smith's voice in this splendid book is instantly recognizable as the calm, sympathetic, psychologically shrewd, and morally generous one that narrates his novels. This is not only a convincing account of W.H. Auden's poetry and life. It is also a self-portrait ... ".

What are two things a writer must have? I think they are, something to say, and the ability to say exactly what s/he intended. Nobody does this better t
Oct 01, 2013 rated it really liked it
I've never been able to appreciate poetry very much, and I don't know why. But I tried hard with this book, since Alexander McCall Smith is one of my very favorite authors, and he often refers to W.H. Auden in his series. This was a beautifully written, fascinating book, and I learned a lot about Auden and his poetry. But I think it's McCall Smith's own writing style that I really enjoyed here.
Jan 31, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Wonderful contribution to the Writers on Writers collection -- Alexander McCall Smith has incorporated thoughts on W H Auden in a number of his books, especially the Isobel Dalhousie series, and in this little book he traces his own experience of reading (and thinking about) Auden's poetry. It sent me to an anthology of 20th Century Poetry to read more so I could share his enthusiasm.
Kerry Bridges
Nov 03, 2013 rated it really liked it
I am not good at poetry, I like simple rhymes and I am terrible at hidden meanings. I actually still don't like Auden's poetry having read this book. But I really, really like Alexander McCall Smith and this is just as much his story as Auden's. If you like him, you should read it!
Feb 14, 2014 rated it really liked it
This book is as much about Smith as it is about Auden. As an Auden fan and one-time scholar, I appreciate Smith's insights. He leaves one wanting more. Maybe that's not a bad thing, especially if he attracts more people to read one of the finest poets of the 20th century.
Mark Glidden
Nov 15, 2013 rated it really liked it
A good read, but a better title would have been "What W.H. Auden has done for me".
Erin Britton
May 09, 2017 rated it really liked it
Upon finding herself in a moral quandary, philosopher/investigator Isabel Dalhousie (of Scotland Street fame) likes to consult the work of insightful yet cantankerous poet W. H. Auden. After reading What W. H. Auden Can Do for You, the reasoning behind her faith in the wisdom of Auden is suddenly a great deal clearer – Alexander McCall Smith also believes that guidance (however vague) to just about every problem can be found in the life/work of Auden. What W. H. Auden Can Do for You is therefore ...more
Aug 04, 2017 rated it liked it
I picked up this book because I’m a fan of Alexander McCall Smith’s works, and McCall Smith is a great fan of Auden’s works. It seemed like a good recommendation.
Once upon a time I read lots of poetry, but the only poem I knew by W.H. Auden before reading this book was “Funeral Blues”, which was quoted to such great effect in “Four Weddings and a Funeral”. This book has inspired me to read more of Auden’s works, which is obviously what McCall Smith intended when he wrote this book of Fan Non-Fic
Jun 22, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2014
What W.H. Auden Can Do For You is an incitement to read Auden's poetry. Smith's approach is to tell stories about his own responses to Auden's poems by recalling memorable lines that have given great pleasure to him, enriching and deepening his experience of many of life's abundant small pleasures.
While presenting himself as a reader, not a poetry critic, Smith does give brief synopses of the critical response to Auden's poetry. He discusses major themes running through Auden's poems, showing
Jan 02, 2014 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: lover of Auden's poetry
I love Auden. I was first introduced to him in third year university (when I was 20) and I fell in love instantly with “Musee des Beaux Arts” and “The Shield of Achilles.” So after the class ended (it wasn’t about Auden – we only studied a few poems as the class was about Modernism in general), I bought a small Auden compilation and it has never left my bedside table. Seriously. I always have it there. It’s one of my most cherished books, because I just love his poetry and often read a poem or t ...more
Oct 26, 2014 rated it it was amazing

Alexander McCall Smith
What WH Auden can do for you
2013 by Princeton University Press 137 p.
Part of Writers on Writers (I previously reviewed the Dirda On Conan Doyle. Now I must look up CK Williams On Whitman.)

This book is a a personal enthusiasm or appreciation for the English poet. This contains 12 short essays/chapters, not a critique of the poet, but more a way to link poetry to everyday life. AMS is no literary slouch and a prolific writer of popular mysteries. Any talk or lecture is worth
Jul 22, 2015 rated it liked it
This is a cute little book. I don't know much about poetry (except I like Auden's work), and I'd never heard of this author before, so I'm assessing the book in a vacuum.

It feels like a quaint neighborhood party in the conservative late '60s, when one person would get a bright idea and invite all his friends over for a few modest drinks and a small presentation. That's what this book feels like: lots of dark wood, a record collection of orchestras, a couple very comfortable chairs, and a host ve
Feb 12, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I randomly picked up this book at the library, intrigued by McCall Smith’s premise that reading is something which can change a person’s life. I have to admit that prior to reading this I knew next to nothing about either WH Auden and had never read any of Alexander McCall Smith’s books, but I really enjoyed this and will be seeking out more of their work as a result.

Written like a memoir with a portrait of WH Auden contained within it, we learn about both McCall Smith’s early literary endeavou
David Ball
Oct 15, 2015 rated it really liked it
Like jazz, I always thought poetry should be a bigger part of my life than it is. Sadly I seem to lack the intellectual capacity to appreciate either art form. Maybe with age, I think to myself, I'll finally start to 'get it'. But I don't. But that doesn't stop me from trying. So when I found this slight book at my local used bookstore, I thought 'why not'? Learning a thing or two about Auden could come in handy some day. And I've heard many good things about McCall Smith from my wife. In many w ...more
Jul 08, 2015 rated it liked it
I'm not an Auden scholar but he has written some poems that I like very, very much. And I've not read the entire series of "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency," but what I've read I've found utterly charming. So . . . I expected to like McCall Smith's book on Auden better than I did.

Perhaps he makes too extravagant a claim for Auden, - that his poetry offers one of the best guides on how to live. Perhaps my ground is too stony. Or the lines he quotes are too fragmented. At any rate, McCall Smith
Oct 12, 2014 added it
Of course, like most of the English-speaking world I have read almost every book that the kilt-wearing prolific author Alexander McCall Smith has penned. I was attracted to this little gem by its small format, and brevity. Perhaps a takeoff on "How Proust Can Change Your Life," this book comprises a set of a dozen personal essays and reflections that explore McCall Smith's long time fascination and attraction to the works and life of the British-born poet. I confess that although I have a better ...more
Aug 13, 2014 rated it really liked it
Very worthwhile. McCall Smith ( author of numerous novels, like THE NO. 1 LADIES' DETECTIVE AGENCY series and the ISABEL DALHOUSIE series) believes that the poems of Auden offer us an excellent guide on how to live. He certainly won me over!
There are 12 chapters (like the 12 apostles?), each reflecting on some aspect of Auden's writings: love (both erotic and the selfless sort), politics and personal responsibility, education, psychoanalysis, dogs, community and religion to name a few. A lot of
Feb 13, 2017 rated it liked it
I had a hard time with this book. I can tell the author truly loves the poet Auden and he does explain why - but mostly I felt as though my ability to understand poetry is quite limited. Perhaps I can improve on that.
Mar 10, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: poetry
This book did help me understand Auden's work a little better. I need to read more of it to get a better feel for his work. What it more showed me was how poetry affects the writer's mind and the imagination. In this case inspiring good writing and characters with depth, as I so admire McCall Smith's great writing. If you go to Smith's website you will see the famous images from his novels floating on the screen: a tea pot, a small white van etc. What I enjoy about Smith's novels are precisely h ...more
Jan 30, 2014 rated it liked it
Recommended to Julia by: mister ted walch himself
the important thing about this book is that walch gave it to me. i repeat, walch gave it to me. i have achieved an item on the bucket list of a certain kind of harvard-westlake student. insert exclamation points.
we talked a bit about this book a few days before he gave it to me yesterday (uh, thus why he gave it to me, i suppose, although also it was apparently because he liked my philosophy midterm presentation? who knows), so i knew going into it that this was a very lightweight, imperfect bo
This was a very interesting read. Alexander McCall Smith discusses how his discovery in his youth of Auden's poetry changed his life. He gives a brief sketch of Auden's life and focuses on a few key poems. As always, McCall Smith was full of insights, wisdom and the ability to articulate so well aspects of the human experience that we all understand but at times can not find the words for.

He discusses how he met Auden's literary friend Edmund Mendleson just as he was beginning to writer the Isab
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Alexander McCall Smith is the author of the international phenomenon The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, the Isabel Dalhousie Series, the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series, and the 44 Scotland Street series. He is professor emeritus of medical law at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and has served on many national and international bodies concerned with bioethics. He was born in what ...more
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“There may be no book on the mothers of poets, or artists in general, but it might one day be written and would be, I think, an enlightening read.” 0 likes
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