These 19 essays showcase precision intellectual workmanship, displaying intricate, multifaceted models of how writing and thinking relate to life. Gass won the 1985 National Book Award for a previous essay collection, Habitations of the Word; most recently he authored an ingenious, gigantic novel, The Tunnel (1995). The essays reprinted here belong to a variety of genres, but all centrally consider how writing enters into the world--how writers find forms adequate for their thoughts. In an opening section Gass takes on several institutions that in his opinion mark today's writing with mediocrity; he dissects the disgraceful track record of the Pulitzer Prize for literature and the inadequacies of the minimalist prose style that emenates from academic fiction-writing programs. His main focus, however, is on conjunctions of writing with philosophy and experience. Gass offers appreciations of favorite modern authors whose works and lives are rich in philosophical meditiation, such as Robert Walser and Danilo Kis; biographical review essays treating the relationship of life to work for Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Ezra Pound; and digests of intellectual history burdened with such portentous titles as ``Nature, Culture, and Cosmos.'' These latter can suffer from showboating and cutefying. Such faults crop up occasionally even in the best essays here. Gass's postmodern idiom at times leads him to facile would-be cleverness--informing us with regard to Nietzsche, for instance, that ``of course, the superman doesn't sport blue underwear.'' At his best, however, when Gass puts his philosophical bent at the service of his literary gifts, singular insights emerge. This volume's finest essays shed new light on the workings of prose style--on ``the music of prose''--in cases ranging from a lively piece of Middle English sermonizing to the impressionism of Ford Madox Ford. Gass shines when he addresses the subject most befitting a self-described ``Methodologist,'' one ``for whom the medium is the muse''--his own prose medium itself.