In accepting the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism for his 1983 collection, “Hugging the Shore,” John Updike modestly described himself as “a freelance writer who writes on occasion about books, bringing to the task a rusty liberal-arts education, an average citizen’s spotty knowledge of contemporary issues and a fiction writer’s childish willingness to immerse himself in make-believe.” His decision to begin writing book reviews, he said, was probably prompted “by a dim sense that the humanities and arts need repeated injections of amateurism.”It’s extraordinary not just that Updike established himself as one of the pre-eminent critics of his day, but also that he did so while moonlighting from his vocation as a novelist. In fact, as this latest collection of essays reminds us, Updike was that rare creature: an all-around man of letters, a literary decathlete who brought to his criticism an insider’s understanding of craft and technique; a first-class appreciator of talent, capable of describing other artists’ work with nimble, pictorial brilliance; an ebullient observer, who could bring to essays about dinosaurs or golf or even the theory of relativity a contagious, boyish sense of wonder.Assembled after Updike’s death in 2009 by the editor Christopher Carduff, “Higher Gossip” is a somewhat more scattershot affair than his earlier nonfiction collections. It lacks the deeply thought-out literary essays (on American masters like Hawthorne and Melville) and the sustained critical investigations of the author’s distinguished contemporaries (like Philip Roth and Saul Bellow) found in “Hugging the Shore” and “Odd Jobs,” and its essays on art often feel like oddments left over from his two earlier books of art criticism, “Just Looking” and “Still Looking.” The pieces about golf reprise ideas already explored in his 1996 book “Golf Dreams,” just as the autobiographical ones reverberate with echoes of his 1989 memoir, “Self-Consciousness.”“Higher Gossip” is also filled out with disposable scraps of writing: a cursory, faintly patronizing one-paragraph-long tribute to F. Scott Fitzgerald; some lesser stories; and even a comment about baseball players made for a coffee table book. Such pieces attest to Updike’s obsession with turning every thought into words, every observation into prose: a testament to his love of writing, but also to his apparent drive to preserve everything, notable or not, in print.“I would write ads for deodorants or labels for catsup bottles, if I had to,” he told The Paris Review in 1967.At the same time, however, “Higher Gossip” offers the reader plenty of palpable pleasures, reminding us of the author’s sorcererlike ability to evoke the worlds other artists created with a simple wave of his wand, and his talent for making scholarly topics feel utterly immediate and real. Comic characters, Updike writes in an essay about humor, are “rubbery,” with the ability to bounce back, whereas tragic ones tend to be brittle and stony and fated to “irrevocably shatter” under pressure .Updike writes that in the “urbane, top-hat fantasy world wherein Fred Astaire and Cole Porter reign as quintessential performer and creator, love is wry, jokey, casual and even weary but nonetheless ecstatic: you’re Mickey Mouse” (as the song “You’re the Top!” goes: “You’re a Bendel bonnet,/a Shakespeare sonnet,/You’re Mickey Mouse!”).He notes that the painter J. M. W. Turner “didn’t see human beings as worth much in the balance of things” — his people are dwarfed by nature’s majesty and terror — and he persuasively argues that Turner “showed other artists a way to the future” with his increasingly abstract and subjective canvases, “pictures of nothing” that would prefigure the next century’s Abstract Expressionism.As for fellow American writers, Updike connects the dots between their life experiences and their artistic visions. He describes Kurt Vonnegut’s view of the universe as “basically atrocious, a vast sea of cruelty and indifference” — the legacy of witnessing the firebombing of Dresden firsthand during World War II.He describes Raymond Carver as managing to carve from a “near wreck of a life” — penury, heavy drinking, illness — “stories of exquisite directness, polish and calm that sit in the mind like perfect porcelain teacups,” though they often depict lives “beneath the threshold of any aspiration higher than day-to-day survival.”And of John Cheever, Updike writes: “The joy of the physical world, so often extolled in his fiction, and the triumph of his rise from an impoverished young immigrant to New York City to star literary status afforded him, it seems, far from enough comfort.” Cheever’s characters, too, he writes, are “desirous, conflicted, alone adrift,” unable to “achieve the crystalline stoicism, the defiant willed courage, of Hemingway’s.”Most of the pieces in this volume were written during the last two decades of Updike’s life and many project an air of nostalgia: a sense of time’s passage, receding vistas, intimations of mortality. In looking back at his own earlier work, Mr. Updike says he fears that his prose has lost “its carefree bounce, its snap, its exuberant air of slight excess.” He writes about the resentment younger writers may feel toward “the gray-haired scribes” who “continue to take up space and consume the oxygen in the increasingly small room of the print world.”And in a much-talked-about 2006 response to a manifesto by the former Wired magazine editor Kevin Kelly (about the prospect of a universal library that might digitally unravel books into remixable snippets), he eloquently defends the primacy of the individual voice, the inviolable nature of artistic creation.In one of the most engaging pieces in “Higher Gossip” Updike muses about the history of American snapshots, noting how they’ve changed over the decades and how they’ve served two impulses: “the creative and the commemorative.” The first, he writes, “sought to catch, in the plump snap of the shutter, something vivid and even beautiful in its color and contour; the second aim, more realistic though in a sense grander, was to halt the flow of time.”This, of course, is what Updike himself did in countless novels, short stories and other writings over a five-decade-long career: He gave us windows into other lives as they unfurled through the quiet 1950s, the upheavals of the late ’60s and ’70s and onward across the turn of the millennium — flash-lit glimpses of ordinary life in all its mundane, inexhaustible and kaleidoscopic glory.