In the opening salvo of her latest collection of essays—her sixth—Cynthia Ozick takes aim at those who express alarm about dwindling audiences for literature in the age of mass media:

The "fate of the novel," that overmasticated, flavorless wad of old chewing gum, is not in question. Novels, however they may manifest themselves, will never be lacking. What is missing is a powerfully persuasive, and pervasive, intuition for how they are connected, what they portend in the aggregate, how they comprise and color an era.

What is missing, in other words, is serious criticism. This is not, in Ozick's view, on offer from dry-as-dust professors or academic theorists who "have for decades marinated literature in dogma." Nor is it the province of journalist-reviewers, distracted from the long view by the hue and cry of the moment, who Ozick says fail to "catch the cross-reverberations" between books. Only critics can show how literature (to use R. P. Blackmur's famous phrase) adds "to the stock of available reality" and to the apprehension of that reality. The literary critic alone, Ozick argues, teases out underlying cultural conditions, distills writers' indebtedness to a larger tradition, and addresses not the question who will read, but why.

Here, Ozick replies to that question in pieces on the emotional furnishings of Lionel Trilling's resplendent essays and unsatisfactory novels and on the oracular idiosyncrasies of Harold Bloom, for whom every text comes into being out of its reading (or misreading) of an earlier text. For their navigations of the cross-currents of tradition and originality, Ozick takes these two critics as her touchstones.

At the heart of this collection, Ozick does not merely praise literary criticism; she shows us how it's done. She writes here with brainy brio on why Saul Bellow's idiom "escapes eclipse," on the sovereign art of Bernard Malamud's "feelingful moral sensibility," on W. H. Auden as "a poet—no, the poet—of unembarrassed intellect," and on the "commanding conundrums" of Franz Kafka's abbreviated life, which both transcended and did not transcend "Prague's roiling German-Czech-Jewish brew." In each case, Ozick's strengths as a consummate stylist are on full display, above all in the alternations of seriousness and levity. And in each case, the fulcrum of her essays—and of her answer to the question "why read"—is her wonderment at how these writers educate and enlarge our sympathies.

Yet Ozick is a writer doubly divided, and her defense in this new book of the role of literary critics—unlike Edmund Wilson's 1928 manifesto, "The Critic Who Does Not Exist"—bears the density of not-entirely-reconcilable impulses. First, though she confesses to having only a little Hebrew ("so little as to be equivalent to none"), Ozick writes from within a Jewish tradition that is suspicious of the seductions of what she calls "the relentlessly and recklessly unbound imagination." Her essays are hosannas to order and orthodoxy. Her old sparring partner Bloom justly called her "an authentic sharer in the normative tradition that, above all others in the West, bids us to honor our mothers and our fathers, and more precisely, honor their virtues."

Ozick has long worried that the literary imagination subverts those virtues and defies both "the moral edict and the sober deed." She is besotted with literature but has also parsed literature as a form of idol-making, a violation of the Second Commandment, a usurpation—or is it a mimicry—of the divine act of creation. Commentary is permitted; invention (as a rivalry with the Creator and Author) is not.

Second, Ozick writes both as an essayist and a novelist. Her stories, as much as her sinewy essays, are clamorous in ideas. Like her fictional heroine Puttermesser, Ozick the novelist has "the habit of flushing with ideas as if they were passions." Still, she insists that the two modes, however close in their cadences and contents, remain distinct: "The native language of the critical essayist is Intelligence," she notes. "The native language of the fiction-writer is Revelation."

The essays culled into her latest book are, in the end, best taken as translations from one language into another. Many of our most discerning contemporary critics—Harold Bloom, Robert Alter, Joseph Epstein—favor Ozick's essays over her fiction. But both languages are native to Ozick, and in both she writes with unflinching eloquence, with all the stops out. It is more than enough to explain why we read her with such gratitude and gratification.

Benjamin Balint is the author of Running Commentary and coauthor of the forthcoming Jerusalem: City of the Book.