In his 28th book, Davenport the humanist (he is also a novelist, poet, translator, and critic) draws on his knowledge of antiquity and modernism, and many points in between, to travel crablike among the various arts in a consciously miscellaneous essay collection, his third (after Geography of the Imagination, 1981, and Every Force Evolves a Form, 1987). Sent this way and that, seemingly by curiosity or instinct, the writer avoids making academic pronouncements. Unlike so many contemporary literary historians and critics, Davenport writes in order to be understood; his prose is playful, never cryptic. As a consequence, he can lead us into challenging territory--the work of Charles Darwin, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Wallace Stevens, Jean Cocteau--without a fuss, and without losing us. The piece on Darwin, for example, ``Life, Chance, and Charles Darwin,'' seems to be the product of ``untaught'' enthusiasm, in the very best sense. His memoir ``On Reading,'' originally published in Antaeus, and mixing recollections of his studies at Duke, Oxford, and Harvard with a southern autodidact's now affectionate, now scouring independent-mindedness, is a classic. ``The mind is a self- consuming organ and preys on itself,'' Davenport writes. ``It is an organ for taking the outside in.'' The comments in this autobiographical excursion are central to his overall approach as a critic; throughout the book, Davenport sets out to do just as he likes, serving as a masterly sort of common reader, and declining the burden of political correctness. The essay on Stein in particular, ``Late Gertrude,'' returns us to that influential yet neglected literary beacon. Davenport's wry ``occasional'' observations line up jauntily in the fragmentary ``Micrographs'' and in two journal series (e.g., ``Hemingway's prose is like an animal talking. But what animal?''). Only rarely is a note of preciousness sounded. These are the recent explorations of an omnivorous, ideal reader, road maps for the rest of us.