Iain Maloney’s “The Japan Lights” is a difficult book to shelve — in a good way. Interspersed with cultural and philosophical asides, it’s a part travelogue, part biography best kept by your bedside for a few months, like a night light that sheds small but significant illuminations.

Maloney starts and ends his book with the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, an event that’s seemingly unrelated to his main subject, Richard Henry Brunton, an obscure Scotsman who was employed by the Meiji government to build lighthouses across Japan in the 19th century. By connecting his personal travels and experiences in Japan to the pursuits of Brunton, an ambitious foreigner who tried to forge a memorable career with his creations, the author turns the narrative into a tale of self-discovery. Maloney also sets up the sea as a defining metaphor to symbolize both a highway and a gate to examine what makes a “great life.”

The Japan Lights, By Iain Maloney. 244 pages, TIPPERMUIR BOOKS, Nonfiction.