Best-selling novelist Alexander McCall Smith talks about the books that inspired him.

Favourite book as a child

As a child I loved Rudyard Kipling’s Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, a story of a boy who kept a mongoose as a pet. The mongoose saves him from a cobra that takes up residence in the house. I knew this story virtually word perfect, as children tend to do with their favourites. The first book I remember owning was The Boy’s Book of Merchant Shipping. It must have been extremely dull. I loved it and slept with it under my pillow.

Which books have made you laugh and cry?

I laugh when I read Barbara Pym or the Mapp and Lucia novels. There is much to laugh over in the wicked humour of Muriel Spark in a novel such as Symposium. Crying over a book is, I think, much rarer. I tend to get moist-eyed over poignant rather than truly tragic descriptions. I remember as a teenager crying when I read A Man’s a Man for a’ That. I could also cry over John Anderson, My Jo and Ae Fond Kiss.

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Favourite characters in fiction?

I have a lot of time for Emma’s father in Jane Austen’s Emma. As a hypochondriac and acute worrier, he is a most unlikely hero, but I gather that there is a Mr Wodehouse Society dedicated to him.

Least favourite genre?

I have little interest in science fiction, although I do know that it can be intellectually stimulating. Thrillers bore me, I’m afraid – at least the conventional contemporary thriller.

Book you wish you’d written?

I have long admired Evelyn Waugh’s trilogy about the Second World War, the Sword of Honour novels. Guy Crouchback is a wonderfully sympathetic character and there is an extraordinary, grave beauty to Waugh’s writing in these books. I would have liked to have written them. I would also like to have written Nadine Gordimer’s magnificent novel, The Conservationist.

E-reader or print?

Print for me. I love the feel of a well-made book. I love good typography. I find that with an e-reader I have no real sense of where I am in the book.

Last book you didn’t finish?

I have a whole stack of unfinished books. This is not to say that I have not got anything from them – I often have. But sometimes you find that a book could make the essential point the author wish to make in, say, 50 pages rather than 150 pages. Some books are really essays that have been teased out into full-length books. If I don’t like a book – if I think it meretricious or pretentious – I sometimes throw it in the bin. Then I relent, fish it out, and send it to Oxfam.

Last book you read?

A fascinating book by Owen Flanagan called The Bodhissativa’s Brain. I like reading philosophy and Professor Flanagan is an interesting contemporary philosopher. Here he looks at how neuroscience may throw some light on the insights of Buddhists.

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Favourite three novels?

Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women is in my view an almost perfect novel in structure, observation, and sympathy. The narrator is as mousy as any of Pym’s creations – she is, as she herself observes, one of those people who do not deserve to have their own bathroom. Here is somebody who makes a life from the crumbs from others’ tables. Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy captures a moment, and place when private lives were being led against a backdrop of great events. It is a romantic story too; I find the idea of romance in the midst of conflict and division a most intriguing one.

I love the novels of the Indian writer, RK Narayan. His Malgudi novels are little gems of small town life. There is an immense sympathy in them – sympathy for people for whom life is not quite what they would wish it to be. He was a discovery of Graham Greene, who much admired his work. Recently, when I was in India, having breakfast with a friend who had written a biography of Narayan, I suggested we form an RK Narayan Society. We shall do this, I hope. All great writers deserve a society dedicated to their work. I am a member of the Barbara Pym Society and the WH Auden Society, amongst others.

Favourite three non-fiction books?

Above all others, WH Auden’s Collected Shorter Poems. Auden is my greatest literary enthusiasm. His was a most humane voice; his intelligence and understanding of the world were profound. He wrote on an astonishing range of subjects. What other poet could write with such lyrical beauty about limestone and also the implications of Freudian analysis?

A Late Education by Alan Moorehead. Moorehead was an Australian journalist who became a war correspondent in the Second World War. He wrote movingly of his experiences in North Africa and Italy. Later, he wrote about the Nile, amongst other subjects. People have forgotten about him now, even in Australia, although a recent biography published there might rekindle interest in this very fine writer.

Christopher Alexander is a professor of architecture who has become, in his own lifetime, a whole climate of opinion. His A Pattern Language lists his principles of humane architecture and planning. It is a delight. I found that it changed the way I looked at the world about me. The perpetrators of architectural horrors (and we have plenty of those in our Scottish cities) should be sentenced to read this book as a form of community service for their aesthetic crimes. I give this book to friends when I find a second-hand copy.

Favourite Scottish Book?

Ruthven Todd was a Scottish poet who wrote, in my view, some of the finest poetry of the 1930s and 1940s. William Maclellan, the Glasgow publisher who published the Poetry Scotland Series, included in that series a volume of Todd’s called Acreage of the Heart. I treasure it and whenever I am in a second-hand bookshop I look for it – always without success. One day I shall find it.

Most interesting or unusual use of a book?

A German friend of mine wrote a big fat book, a tome on a highly obscure subject. Whenever he visits us, I ostentatiously use his book as a door stop. How we laugh.

Alexander McCall Smith has two new novels out now: The Second Worst Restaurant in France (Polygon, £14.99) and The Department of Sensitive Crimes (Little,Brown, £17.99)