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At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches by Susan Sontag
At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches

Laura Nathan, March 18, 2007

To read At the Same Time — the collection of nonfiction pieces Susan Sontag was working on at the end of her life — is to realize what a bold mind and voice we have lost. But this collection, though less groundbreaking than its predecessors — Against Interpretation, Illness As Metaphor, On Photography, also reassures us that Sontag’s writing, her wit, grace, and resolve, will continue to influence serious readers, curious minds, and the politically concerned for generations to come. Each essay published in its unedited form, these pieces, right down to the collection’s structure, were shaped by Sontag’s hands alone.

Its unsentimental foreword penned by Sontag’s son David Rieff, At the Same Time illuminates the late writer’s many passions: literature, translation, beauty and aesthetics, politics, free speech, and, of course, photography. Featuring forewords Sontag wrote for translated works like Leonid Tsypkin’s Summer in Baden-Baden and Anna Banti’s Artemisia, the collection’s first third gives us an intimate portrait of Sontag the reader. Written in a way that reads like curling up with a glass of wine and talking to a good friend, the forewords all but ensure that we readers will becomes fans of the authors Sontag celebrates.

With its focus on September 11, the second third of the collection initially feels pedestrian. But read alongside Sontag’s reflections on September 11, 2002, and Abu Ghraib, these essays reveal the power of candor when it was eschewed, courage when it was confused with consent. Considering how quickly Sontag said what few other Americans dared to mutter, they remind us how Sontag has changed our understandings of this post-9/11 world.

It seems fitting that the collection’s back cover includes a picture of a note, presumably written by Sontag, that says, “Do something,” three times. The collection’s concluding pages include Sontag’s final public speeches, which illuminate the ethical importance of translating foreign works, of writing and truth telling, of resistance. A lasting reminder of the inseparability of politics and literature, they confirm Sontag’s belief that “in a time in which the values of reading and inwardness are so strenuously challenged, literature is freedom.”
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