Essayist, novelist, and travel writer Pico Iyer is the author of more than a dozen books. His adopted home country features in his two most recent works — Autumn Light and A Beginner's Guide to Japan — both now available in paperback.

The Quiet American by Graham Greene (1955).

A master of troubled consciences unfolds a compact tale of ­empires — the British, the American, and the ­Asian — braided around three divided lovers. Though it's set in Vietnam, this is the book to read to understand the latest news from Kabul, or just to know why we feel homesick for faraway places and betray the people we love.

Letters of Emily Dickinson (1894).

We all know the gnomic, explosive verse of the woman who let Death and Jesus and Eternity and Wild Nights into her bedroom. But this book, no less strange and original, crackles with some of the most passionate love letters ever written, addressed to a future sister-in-law.

Walden by Henry David Thoreau (1854).

These riddling reflections on a pond moved me to quit my comfortable job in New York, to see that a single room could be more luxurious than a five-bedroom house, and to realize that the only accounts that matter are the ones we keep in private. From two years of near-seclusion and 10 years of writing, Thoreau produced an American scripture that draws on the wisdom of the world.

Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro (2009).

Like her literary goddaughter Elizabeth Strout, the Canadian short-story master and Nobel laureate Alice Munro enjoys the gift of being surprised by life and thus showing us real people whom we can never predict. Remaking every rule she doesn't break, she throws off fresh and unexpected tales of liberation as true as your neighborhood tomorrow.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (1995).

If you've already read Dickens and Hardy and Hugo, this is the contemporary epic to add to your shelf. Four regular souls in Bombay in the 1970s struggle to survive poverty and oppression. All are seen with such compassion, intimacy, and craft that they become the reader's friends for life.

In Search of Lost Time (Remembrance of Things Past) by Marcel Proust (1913–1927).

Some writers show us the self; some give us the world. Proust saw through both with enough cool poise to fashion the wisest, deepest — and funniest — handbook to life this side of a Buddhist sutra.