"Every morning," confessed Jean Cocteau gloomily, "I tell myself, you can do nothing about it: submit." I know how he feels. Periodically I awake -- usually after a night of grinding my remaining teeth and a few director's-cut nightmares -- to the conviction that I never could write, lack all critical intelligence, and am, at best, nothing but a shallow dilettante. While public intellectuals or cutting-edge critics are busy primping for their morning sound-bites and radio spots, I shamble despondently to the bathroom with phrases like "bankrupt imagination" and "where did I go wrong?" resounding through my otherwise bleakly empty mind.

But after a pot of black coffee, I start to look on the, well, less dark side. I still love to read, and avowed dilettantism does free one from any kind of parti pris zealotry. Specialization, ideology, intellectual turf -- none of these troubles the insouciant boulevardier of letters. While single-minded scholars devote careers to learning everything about novelist Charles Brockden Brown, while deep thinkers delve deeper and deeper into the theoretical underpinnings of feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray, while with-it assistant profs deconstruct Indian captivity narratives or hip-hop lyrics or movie scripts, I simply read whatever catches my fancy.

That shameless eclecticism is reflected in the sort of books that pile up around my bedside during the fall. As Christmas approaches, these stacks grow more and more precarious, rather like my own tenuous grip on reality. But it's pretty clear that the common element among these livres de chevet is that they tend to be highly personal works, nobly and steadfastly dilettantish even when the authors hold passionate views about art and culture. Let's take a quick look at 12, the canonical number for all things Yuleish.

1) Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings: Volume 3, 1935-1938, edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Harvard Univ., $39.95). Is Walter Benjamin the last century's preeminent literary theorist and cultural analyst? This latest volume of Harvard's majestic annotated edition of the essays and fragments includes reflections on Brecht, Kafka and the collector Eduard Fuchs, an early version of the famous analysis of art in the age of mechanical reproduction (here more accurately translated as "technological reproducibility") and the equally exhilarating inquiry into the nature of narrative, "The Storyteller." You feel smarter just holding this book in your hand.

2) Gargoyle 45, edited by Richard Peabody and Lucinda Ebersole ($10). Yes, this is the latest issue of Washington's most revered and irreverent literary magazine. For me its highlight is Steven Moore's "Nympholepsy," a despairing meditation on love, literature and unappeasable longing: "Still she haunts me." Surely it belongs in one of those anthologies of the best essays of the year. Certainly no man past 40 will read it without a pang of recognition.

3) A Palpable Elysium: Portraits of Genius and Solitude, by Jonathan Williams (Godine, $30). My favorite picture book of the year: Jonathan Williams, legendary force behind The Jargon Society and its publications, here juxtaposes his portraits of favorite makers -- Louis Zukofsky, Buckminster Fuller, Guy Davenport, Stevie Smith -- with photographs of the graves of the glorious dead, from H.P. Lovecraft to Charlie Parker. To each image he appends a micro-essay, often a memory or anecdote, full of pith and vinegar. Of Wallace Stevens he concludes with a twinkle: "He endures obdurately, and all blackbirds join me in saying so."

4) The Last Uncle, by Linda Pastan (Norton, $23). The holiday season, whether the holiday be Kwanzaa, Christmas or Hanukkah, needs both joy and thoughtfulness -- and isn't this almost a definition of poetry? Linda Pastan lives in the Maryland suburbs and may be the metro area's best poet, unless that title belongs to Anthony Hecht, Lucille Clifton, Henry Taylor or one or two other contenders. Her most recent collection, autumnal and subdued, movingly chronicles loss, fear, the passing of time: "For Jews, the Cossacks are always coming./ Therefore I think the sun spot on my arm/ is melanoma. Therefore I celebrate/ New Year's Eve by counting/ my annual dead. "

5) Reviewery, by Christopher Ricks (Handsel, $30). "What have the following in common: Chaucer, Francis Bacon, Donne, Bunyan, Herrick, Jonathan Swift, Smollett, Lamb, Keats and Shelley? They are the names of characters in the novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett." How could Christopher Ricks know this except through hard work and lots of it? Ricks -- a leading authority on Milton, Tennyson, Eliot and Beckett, to start another litany -- makes every book review a deeply personal encounter, one marked by fearsome learning, larky wordplay and a textual scholar's taste for exactness and fact. Brilliant pages on Evelyn Waugh, Philip Larkin, William Empson (Ricks's mentor) and George Steiner, but also on sociologist Erving Goffmann, psychologist Stanley Milgram and filmmakers Kubrick and Coppola.

6) Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing: A Novelist Looks at His Craft, by David Morrell (Writer's Digest, $22.99). Back in the 1930s pulp-meister Jack Woodford produced several manuals on how to write popular fiction -- and 50 years later I read as many as I could find. This guide reminds me of those because it treats novel-writing as a matter of reasoned attention and technique rather than muse-inspired afflatus. David Morrell -- a former English professor whose thrillers include the classic First Blood and the recent Long Last -- tells you how to build a novel that really moves. Read it and learn.

7) Vladimir Nabokov, by Jane Grayson; Samuel Beckett, by Gerry Dulles (Overlook, $19.95 each). These two volumes -- on possibly my favorite mid-20th-century writers -- inaugurate a beautifully designed new series called Overlook Illustrated Lives. Roughly the size of trade paperbacks, the 150-page primers surround scores of pictures -- one or more to nearly every page -- with crisply related biography and commentary. (If you know the annual Plei{acute}ade "Album" series -- e.g. Album Stendhal, Album Queneau -- you will recognize this format.) Look no further for the perfect literary stocking stuffer, especially for any admirer of Nabokov, Beckett or fine book-making.

8) Memories and Commentaries, by Igor Stravinsky; edited by Robert Craft (Faber, $35). First published in six volumes and now reconfigured and slightly compressed, these dialogues between the composer and Robert Craft are nearly as irresistible as Johnson's with Boswell. Stravinsky not only recalls the composition of his masterpieces ("Petrushka," "The Rite of Spring," "Oedipus Rex," etc.), but also his encounters with just about every major figure in 20th-century art, music and letters. To think that one man knew -- and sometimes worked closely with -- such varied giants as Rodin, Debussy, Diaghilev, Picasso, Mann, Valery, Cocteau, Auden and Disney. Even more amazingly, both Joyce and Proust once attended the same soiree in Stravinsky's honor.

9) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by W.S. Merwin (Knopf, $22). One of the classics of medieval literature, beautifully edited by J.R.R. Tolkien years ago, but little known because of its difficult alliterative Middle English. Merwin shows himself a veritable Merlin in making the poem sing to our modern ears. On his way to an appointment with certain death, Sir Gawain stops for Christmas at an almost fairy-tale castle. There he is both welcomed by its hearty lord, who challenges him to play a peculiar game of gift-exchange, and sorely tempted by the nobleman's seductive wife, who brazenly offers herself to him: "And now you are here, in truth, and we are alone." An almost Mozartian tale of presumption, honor and our all-too-human failings.

10) Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence, from Hegel to Wodehouse, by Roger Kimball (Ivan R. Dee, $28.95). Ever want to know more about such thinkers and cultural observers as the aphorist Georg Lichtenberg, poet and playwright Charles Peguy or Victorian man of letters Walter Bagehot? If the answer is yes, then you're probably acquainted already with the work of Roger Kimball, managing editor of the New Criterion. A sharp-tongued yet learned essayist (cum conservative polemicist), Kimball has a knack for latching onto figures of the past foolishly neglected in our time, then revealing their importance as stylists, moralists and artists. Any Web site whiz kid can mouth platitudes about Derrida or Foucault, but Kimball will guide you to Plutarch and Santayana.

11) Vanished Splendors: A Memoir, by Balthus, as told to Alain Vircondelet; translated from the French by Benjamin Ivry (Ecco, $29.95). Like Balthus's famous (and sometimes controversial) portraits of dreamy young girls, this series of two-page essays, recorded just before the painter's death last year, possesses an almost eerie quiet and serenity. At the end of his long life, in his nineties, blind, Balthus tells us that he listens to Mozart every day, even now keeps Rousseau's Confessions by his bedside (refreshed by "the clarity and simplicity of language that one finds in classical painting, the diamondlike transparency also visible in Poussin"), and insists that modernity in art should be "the reinvention of the past." He tenderly recalls his teachers and friends: Rilke (who was his mother's devoted companion), Rene{acute} Char, Bonnard, Giacometti, Camus, Malraux. Above all, Balthus emphasizes that his enigmatic paintings are a form of prayer, an attempt to penetrate "the heart of a secret."

12) With Bold Knife and Fork, by M.F.K. Fisher (Counterpoint, $27.50). Nobody other than Colette writes better than M.F.K. Fisher about pleasure. A lovely reissue of one of Fisher's best books about savoring life, one combining -- as usual -- recipes, sensuous prose, and tantalizing autobiography. What could be better for the holidays? *

Michael Dirda's email address is dirdam@washpost.com. His weekly discussion of books take place on Thursdays at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.

Portrait of Colette from "Portraits from a Life: Lee Miller," by Richard Calvocoressi (Thames & Hudson, $45)