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A voice to remember


HER RECOLLECTION of lying in bed as a youngster, looking at the volumes in her bookcase, wasn't particularly original or unconventional or provocative. "A book was like stepping through a mirror," Susan Sontag once said. "I could go somewhere else. Each one was a door to a whole new kingdom."

But each door she opened, every literary, philosophical, cultural and social landscape she explored, sharpened her thinking and writing, which in turn opened innumerable doors for those daring to venture out. Her looking glass often conveyed an image of the world that challenged conventional thinking. More to the point, it challenged her readers to rethink their views on photography, war, disease, communism, AIDS, 9/11, to name a few.

Though she wrote four novels, including the 2000 National Book Award winner, "In America," Ms. Sontag, who died yesterday of cancer, was best known for her penetrating, insightful and critical essays. That is not to say that her writing was universally praised or liked -- but who could not admire her intellect, passion, desire to know everything?

Hers was a singular American voice. And at times it was tough to take.

Acknowledging her responsibility as "a citizen of the American empire," Ms. Sontag traveled to Hanoi during the U.S. bombing in 1968 and delivered what some called a sympathetic essay on Vietnamese resistance. But in supporting the Solidarity movement in Poland, she offered a tough critique on communism. She was political all right, but not partisan in her subject matter.

She wrote first about art (pop art) and when she turned her eye and pen to photography, she focused not only on a photograph or a photographer but on the process of taking the photograph.

Earlier this year, she weighed in on the disturbing photographs of prison abuse at Abu Ghraib. She argued that the "photographs are us. That is, they are representative of the fundamental corruptions of any foreign occupation together with the Bush administration's distinctive policies." Not an unexpected assessment to those familiar with Ms. Sontag's work.

In the end, despite that early reflection on the transforming power of literature, Ms. Sontag will be remembered as an original, unconventional and provocative voice -- a voice that will be missed.

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