I Am That by Nisargadatta Maharaj (Acorn, $29). A direct inspiration for The Empty Chair, this is a compilation of talks given by the Hindu sage at his tobacco shop in Bombay. But what exactly does he mean by "I Am That"? The question — or concept — revolves in one's head like a koan, a seeker's eternal striving to understand.
Kim by Rudyard Kipling (Dover, $3.50). The apotheosis of all that I have passion for: the -student/guru relationship fused with the picaresque adventure story. The ineffable results are poignant, mysterious, deep, unforgettable. In many ways, for me, this is the perfect novel.
Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand by Pabongka Rinpoche (Wisdom, $29). A distillation of talks given in 1921 by a revered Buddhist scholar and edited by Trijang Rinpoche, who was to become a teacher of the Dalai Lama. Some of the most extraordinary chapters are brutal but ultimately poetic summaries on arrogance, impermanence, and the inevitability of death.
Journey to Ixtlan by Carlos Castaneda (Washington Square, $15). All of Castaneda's books are about liberation from the self. This onehas particular magnificence for me, as I read it after the unexpected death of a close friend. Ixtlan refers to an unreachable homeland. Being from L.A., I catch an eerie resonance from a line toward the end: "For Genaro it is Ixtlan; for you it will be Los Angeles."
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (Signet, $9). What can one say about Don Quixote's transcendent, comedic search? Dostoyevsky was said to have remarked that Don Quixote was the saddest book ever written. It is perhaps the most beautiful as well.
Big Sur by Jack Kerouac (Penguin, $16). Kerouac virtually resides in my American DNA, but I came to him late. In Big Sur, the author's stand-in goes through a breakdown that shares a lot in common with Fitzgerald's general crack-up at the juncture of early fame and alcoholism. The story is suffused with the beauty of impermanence and emptiness.
— Bruce Wagner is the author of Dead Stars, I'll Let You Go, and The Chrysanthemum Palace. His latest book, The Empty Chair, pairs two novellas about protagonists who stray from and return to their faith.