For normal human beings, particularly those connected with the scribbling trade, encountering Clive James in Cultural Amnesia or in this latest collection of essays is to bring on an acute attack of inferiority and disbelief.

How has he managed to read everything significant in world literature, often in the original language which he has taught himself (an accomplishment he reminds us of perhaps a little too often)?

But then he doesn't just do the heavy stuff. He's read what he calls the sludge too, from childhood devouring of Biggles up to a comprehensive consumption of modern crime fiction. And then he's seen every major film, is up with the music scene and is capable of delivering an authoritative lecture on Australian visual arts. He has a multi-media website. And did I mention that he's an expert on motor racing drivers?

But when the incredulity at the man's omniscience fades you are left with a sense of gratitude that someone is doing what he is doing and doing it so well. What unites James' approach to the disparate subjects in this collection, drawn from his essays between 2005 and 2008, is a habit of analysis that encourages you to seek out what he is writing about or, if you have already read or seen it, drives you back to the original to re-examine your own conclusions. Inevitably you may not always agree with James who is nothing if not opinionated.

His dismissal of the Nobel Literary prize-winning writer Elias Canetti as "a posturing snob" is not untypical. But the grounds for his contempt are always well defended, as are the reasons for his frequent enthusiasms. Critics of critics often miss the crucial fact that most reviewers of the arts are in the game because they really love their subject. It's hard to miss that with James, whether he is eloquently describing the comic genius of Tommy Cooper or the supreme driving talents of Ayrton Senna.

The concern for quality and impatience with the slipshod is particularly marked in the pieces on the trade of writing. He describes himself as "a living relic of literary journalism" and his attacks on less careful practitioners of journalism and on the academics who believe "the teaching of grammar and spelling is not all that important" will wring a cheer from many of his readers.

If the pursuit of excellence in any sphere is one consistent theme of this miscellany, another is the political point that was the mainspring of Cultural Amnesia. This is that the West is in danger of losing faith in liberal democracy and the freedom it brings. This loss of faith is most marked among intellectuals, as James points out and as Nick Cohen recently underlined in his collection Waiting for the Etonians.

"It would be a good thing," James says, "if the word 'extremist' could be taken up more widely to denote any movement which wants to deal with a contrary opinion by silencing the voice that dares utter it." Perhaps it should not need saying but it is heartening to find James so clearly spelling out: "any set of views should logically begin with the view that there is something desirable about a political system that leaves us free to have them, even if that system finds it difficult, as it should, to deal with views that are inimical to its existence."

Stressing this theme might suggest that this collection, which includes book reviews, lectures, obituaries and some shameless puffs, is heavy going. What my opening sentences on James' terrifying versatility failed to mention is that he remains as funny as when he built his reputation as the Observer's television critic. Even when he is at his most irascible you are never far away from a joke and most of them are, like the rest of the book, of the very highest quality.

* John Gardner is an Auckland reviewer.