Thirty-nine literary essays, all interesting and some superb, by the winner of the 1986 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. Birkerts, a former bookseller whose essays have appeared in The New York Review of Books, The Nation, Partisan Review and The New Republic, follows R.P. Blackmur's view of criticism as ""the formal discourse of an amateur."" In a series of provocative discussions of forgotten, little-known, or misunderstood writers--as well as of more well-known ones--in languages that he himself has often had to read in translation, he playfully tries to rearrange our hierarchies of world literature according to his tenet that ""literature [is] worth nothing if it [can] not help us to make sense of our historical circumstance."" This leads to loving considerations of the German novelists Robert Musil, Robert Walser, and Joseph Roth, and the French novelist and poet Blaise Cendrars, as well as many others more widely known today, including Osip Mandelstam, Max Frisch, Derek Walcott, Marguerite Yourcenar, Malcolm Lowry, Jorge Luis Borges, Walter Benjamin, Cyril Connolly, and Joseph Brodsky. Underlying his praise of these authors' commitment to ""intelligence, moral seriousness, and relentlessness"" is concern over an opposite trend in current American fiction--a trend towards a minimalistic ""passive reflection of fragmentation and unease""--and in sharp essays with such titles as ""The School of Gordon Lish,"" ""Docu-fiction,"" and ""Television: The Medium in the Mass Age,"" he blasts the minimalists and warns that, because of the influence of television, ""subtly and insidiously, reality, the genuine human interaction, is being steadily sponged, divested of authority."" Disdaining all schools, and writing from what appears to be a genuine love of literature and the life of the mind, Birkerts demonstrates a wit, intelligence, and occasional venom that are both stimulating and reassuring.