By Vanessa V. Friedman
Updated August 14, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

The author — an essayist, novelist, and stalwart of the New York literary scene for most of the last five decades — has a curiosity about books that makes these 18 meditations both a challenge and a pleasure. Hardwick looks at writers with an unsparing eye and reveals what she sees in language that is both clear and wonderfully creative. The book is also always cognizant of the modern world. She compares Philip Roth to Richard Jewell, the man falsely accused of bombing the Atlanta Olympics, because Roth too fits a profile (the self-castigating Jew) but turns out to be ”a nice fellow good to his mother.” In a superstore world, Hardwick’s is a determinedly independent voice. A