Beat Generation author Jack Kerouac published his novel The Dharma Bums in 1958. It was influential in his time and widely interpreted as semi-autobiographical. Dean Sluyter is not at all the first person to take that title as inspiration for a way of living and being in the world. One could do far worse.

Sluyter has fun with literature classics in this book. He’s written before about meditation, enlightenment, fear, and spiritual themes at the movies, but here he turns to some of what he did for thirty years a professional English teacher at a private college prep school in New Jersey. Think of Robin Williams in The Dead Poet’s Society, which approaches what you have here on the page.

There’s a connection between spiritual awakening and the books we love, Sluyter says.

He opens up all of those great novels and plays that you read (or perhaps only said you read) in college — The Great Gatsby, A Farewell to Arms, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Macbeth, Waiting for Godot, and Moby-Dick — showing how they are each filled with spiritual lessons and meaning for living.

He turns to some fascinating authors who have long been part of the traditional Western canon of required reading (that canon has expanded, in recent decades, to include more women and people of color, but Sluyter begins here with the old core) such as William Blake, John Donne, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Frederick Douglass, and Henry David Thoreau.

He adds some eclectic touches, too, such as Rodgers and Hammerstein and Oklahoma! (ch. 15), and Dr. Seuss and The Cat in the Hat (ch. 5).

As for classic works from the East, Sluyter explains his indebtedness to them (such as Rumi and the Tao Te Ching), but says he hasn’t set out to introduce them. Instead, he uses their language and tools to open up the Western ones. For example, summarizing some themes in Thoreau’s Walden he says: “There’s a lovely, delicate balance here. We have the reminder of Thoreau’s overriding purpose: to dust the furniture of his mind, to pursue awakening as America’s first deliberate, practicing yogi.”

Later, to explain Gerard Manley Hopkins’s complicated relationship between being both priest and poet, Sluyter tells a story of something that poet Allen Ginsberg learned from the Tibetan lama Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. And Tara, the female buddha of compassion, is used (including a image of the iconography — there are several images in this book too) to explain the poet John Donne, that real compassion is “not just some feeling of pity but the tranquility of being, mobilized in doing.” That chapter title is “Let Us Melt.”

The image of the bodhisattva — an enlightened one who dedicates themselves to helping others find enlightenment — is also used by Sluyter to describe what these authors are doing or who they are, in literature and for readers. In his conclusion, he even finds creative ways to add Fred Rogers of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and Aretha Franklin to the list.

Pick a famous quotation from Western literature of the last couple of centuries and you will likely find it discussed, here. (There’s also a helpful index at the back of the book.) For example, the opening lines of Emily Dickinson’s best-known poem are here:

Because I could not stop for Death —
He kindly stopped for me

And Sluyter reflects on the courage of the poet, who “put aside religion’s smiley-face bromides. (Don’t worry, in heaven you’ll be happily reunited with Grandma and Grandpa and your puppy.) She knew she had to take a more rigorous, empirical approach, to get as close as she could to a direct, unflinching experience of what it means to die. She had to meditate on death, gazing at it steadily, without interposing any concepts, till her gaze penetrated its visible surface.”

This sort of gazing and intention is what Sluyter does as he opens up the world of great written works of art, helping us see again what makes books important for our lives.