Here are two indispensable and beautifully-written guidebooks designed to lead readers through essential Buddhist thought. One is an ancient guide in verse by the western Indian sage Shantideva (c 685-763) to becoming a bodhisattva, someone who seeks enlightenment in order to pass it on to everyone else. The other is a modern bilingual guide by Alex Kerr using the Japanese version of the Heart Sutra, a Mahayana Buddhist text whose mere 56 lines of poetry are regarded by many as the key to all Buddhist wisdom.

Academic books, thank goodness, are getting better and better these days, as professors seem to have realized that readability piques interest far more than pretentiously dense, jargon-ridden prose appealing mostly to purveyors of the same product, and which dismay students who have to read it. Granted, not every academic can write decently—anyone who has struggled through Hegel’s Philosophy of Right can attest to that—but some of them don’t even try to communicate outside their learned boxes, scribbling happily away for an audience of five.

If anyone thought Sei Shōnagon (ca 964-after 1027) was little more than a gossipy, snooty, disingenuously prim and sometimes acerbic observer of life at the effete Heian court of ancient Japan, here is a book to prove that notion completely wrong. Not only can her classic Pillow Book be read on several levels, but it has enjoyed a life of its own as different generations of readers interpret it and reimagine it.

Books, alas, don’t always come in the right order. Having recently reviewed Oliver Craske’s excellent biography of Ravi Shankar, I found myself wishing that I could have read Finding the Raga before undertaking that task. Amit Chaudhuri, well-known Indian novelist and essayist, is also a singer and a musician, but not just any musician. Thoroughly-versed in both Indian and Western classical music, he also has a wide experience of Western popular genres (particularly American folk music), Indian film music and the songs of Rabindranath Tagore.

Many cultures under, or in the shadow of, an empire sometimes make use of that empire’s language to express themselves. Latin was used throughout Europe, while for a couple of centuries after the Norman conquest, the dominant written language in England was French. China exerted a similar cultural pull over its neighbors: Japanese poets would write kanshi and Koreans hansi, both terms being probably derived from the word Han, referring to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) in China. For both, using written Chinese was to make a cultural statement, indicating that these writings were for an elite class of people. Furthermore, despite the invention of hangul, an optimized Korean script, by king Sejong in the 15th century, classical Chinese—both the language and the script—remained the preference of Korean literati for several centuries. Hangul did not in fact hit its stride until well into the 19th century; and, given their acute sense of class-consciousness, Koreans may simply have felt more comfortable reading their stories in classical Chinese.