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Sontag: Her Life and Work

4.10  ·  Rating details ·  594 ratings  ·  116 reviews
The definitive portrait of one of the American Century’s most towering intellectuals: her writing and her radical thought, her public activism and her hidden private face

No writer is as emblematic of the American twentieth century as Susan Sontag. Mythologized and misunderstood, lauded and loathed, a girl from the suburbs who became a proud symbol of cosmopolitanism, Sonta
ebook, 832 pages
Published September 17th 2019 by Ecco
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Oct 08, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2019
Exhaustive in detail, Sontag meticulously charts the life and career of the famous essayist. Across four wide-ranging parts Moser considers how Sontag transformed from a would-be academic with modest origins into an internationally recognized icon of Manhattanite sophistication. Everything fans of the writer would want to know is here, from facts about her traumatic upbringing and her coming of age to information about the composition of her major books and her political activism. But the analys ...more
I just do not know where to start in describing Sontag: Her Life and Work by Benjamin Moser. It is very well researched. As the title indicates, it covers both her life and her works. Her relationships with her mother, her sister, her one time husband, her son, her male and female lovers are all explored. It took me a while to be drawn in. She was both an aesthete and a highbrow intellectual. This put me off at the start. I like straight talk. Initially, I found her way of speaking too highfalut ...more
Sep 24, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: netgalley, reviewed
Sontag: Her Life and Work (2019) written by Benjamin Moser, totally captures the complexities of this dark literary lady and cultural icon. Born Susan Rosenblatt (1933-2004) to Lithuanian Jewish parents, Susan and her only son David Rieff would unapologetically change their given family name to Sontag. It was impossible to contain Sontag’s genius, intellect and persona by the conventions of ordinary life.

The mother daughter dynamic shaped Sontag’s character in numerous obvious and subtle ways. S
Loring Wirbel
Jul 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I found it a little bit odd that some reviewers of the ARC of this book complained that they did not want to waste 700 pages reading about such a difficult person. I tend to think of gushing hagiographies of historical figures as being almost as creepy as biographies of high-profile villains like Hitler or Napoleon. It's far better to read in detail about challenging personalities, warts and all - and Sontag certainly had her share of warts.

Some may wonder in the opening pages if Benjamin Moser
Jun 05, 2020 rated it really liked it
4.5. A fascinating subject well-served by a highly-readable overview. One slight problem: you can't help but sense Moser picked Sontag not merely for her obvious status as intriguing cultural icon/influencer and essayist, but at least partly so he could write a sumptuous takedown. Too often this reader felt credit was conferred just prior to another withering knock. Sontag, as Moser has it, was generous only to people with whom she was 'casually intimate'; those close to her (Annie Leibovitz; he ...more
Sep 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Sontag: Her Life and Work (2019) written by Benjamin Moser, totally captures the complexities of this dark literary lady and cultural icon. Born Susan Rosenblatt (1933-2004) to Lithuanian Jewish parents, Susan and her only son David Rieff would unapologetically change their given family name to Sontag. It was impossible to contain Sontag’s genius, intellect and persona by the conventions of ordinary life.

The mother daughter dynamic shaped Sontag’s character in numerous obvious and subtle ways. S
Susan Sontag: genius, nightmare, inveterate liar, probable case of Borderline Personality Disorder, self-aggrandizing, self-loathing, flailingly co-dependent, bitterly dismissive of those closest to her, searcher for metanarratives, caster-aside of metanarratives, theorist of metaphor, caster-aside of metaphor, prodigy, teen mom, mama's girl, virtual Al-Anon poster-child, plagiarist, plagiarized, empath for peoples but awful with people, feminist, sexual liberator, closet case, and all around me ...more
Sep 07, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A wonderful book. Moser shows patience, love, intelligence and goodwill toward his subject, Susan Sontag. Most books I read on Sontag are by people who knew her personally, and their books read more like a revenge on her. While reading Moser's book, I never thought about the biographer. He kept himself resolutely out of the book. His focus remains on Sontag's life and her work. I enjoyed reading Moser's take about Sontag's essays and her fiction, and how her work intersect with the works of othe ...more
Matthew Wilder
Sep 26, 2019 rated it really liked it
Susan was, beyond all else, an example. She was an avatar of erudition and high purpose that we didn’t have in American letters in the twentieth century. The closest comparable know-it-all is Harold Bloom, but he’s a traditionalist; Susan was interested in the bleeding edge of culture, the difficult stuff that demanded the most of us. (Why did she never write on Straub-Huillet? She must have known that work.)

Moser, who seems to be part of this fellowship, diagnoses Susan as an Adult Child of Alc
Jun 11, 2020 rated it really liked it
Well this was fantastic but also too long. I guess you are supposed to say: she was a complex person blah blah. Who isn’t? My main thought while reading it: what a nasty woman. I pity her and also I would have never wanted to be in one room with her. She is so obnoxious. Her fear to be alone, to be authentic, to be happy. She was such a manipulative mother; judgmental, hostile and elitist with a superiority complex with others and this whole time so insecure in her private diaries. Such a sad an ...more
David M
10/30 - this biography has inspired me to revisit some of the essays in Where the Stress Falls... dismaying. There comes a time to put away childish things. This is kitsch. ‘Culture’ as kitschy Europhilia, that’s what Sontag really stood for in the end. Long past time to read Pierre Bourdieu.

From ‘Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo,’ the ultimate ‘I’m-not-racist-but statement’ in highbrow drag:

Even quite well informed people in the United States and in Europe seem genuinely surprised when I mention t
Oct 08, 2019 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
A huge disappointment...exhaustively researched and informative but the contempt that the writer shows for Sontag,and many of the peripheral figures in her story,made for quite unpleasant reading...I neither expected nor wanted a hagiography but the relentless pseudo-Freudian 'explanations' turned me off...if one is interested in finding out who Sontag was,read the journals,especially REBORN...
Amita MV
Dec 15, 2019 rated it it was ok
This is a long book, but in some ways short on detail and repetitive- Moser constantly plays armchair psychologist, “diagnosing” Sontag with a personality disorder, and blaming issues he describes as stemming from her alcoholic mother. I wasn’t convinced.
Sarah Clark
Feb 25, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Holy crap. This is 700 pages of Sontag with 100 pages of endnotes (some thing you would NEVER find in Sontag’s own work).

Love her or hate her, by the end of this book you will feel both things. My takeaway is that people are fascinating, wonderful, empathetic, clueless, cruel dickheads. All at the same time.

How did Susan Sontag rise to be such a cultural icon as a public intellectual? (er, novelist.... nope, sorry Susan, not your main identity). Just how did she sleep with basically every famous
C. S.
Dec 15, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The year is 2008.

I am 18 or 19, but just beginning to emerge from the borderline codependent relationship that had been my homeschooling experience, I think mentally I was probably closer to 14 or 15.

As sometimes happens in the age of the internet, I found myself on a forum with a fairly diverse group of people, most of them older and smarter than me. And as also sometimes happens, they graciously engaged with my clumsy attempts to make jokes and parrot any opinion I had heard that I got a chan
James Murphy
Nov 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I've always admired Susan Sontag. I don't like her fiction that much,, but I do like her essays, though I haven't read all of them yet. She was an interesting essayist and thinker, and was an interesting woman.

Benjamin Moser's biography is the full Susan. It's comprehensive in covering the events of her life. It also offers fairly expansive critical appraisals of her work, and therefore her thinking. It's a biography which gives us the picture of Sontag we wanted and expected. Moser presupposes
Bruin Mccon
Jan 04, 2020 rated it liked it
DNF at 8%. I’ve read a few Sontag bios and will surely read more in the future. This one was thick and dense like a textbook. Just didn’t do it for me.
Gayla Bassham
Brilliant biography. Easily one of the best books of 2019, maybe of the decade. What made the big splash when this book was released was Moser's theory that Susan Sontag wrote her husband Philip Rieff's book about Freud. Maybe she did. (The New Yorker reviewer disagrees, strongly and at great length.) But I found myself less interested in the question of authorship and more interested in whether her pursuit of greatness made her happy. At some point one of her acquaintances -- I think it was Jam ...more
Alex Greenberger
Oct 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Waffled between hating this and loving it constantly, and yet I was knocked out by the last 100 pages of the book, which made me realize that this book—like Sontag, who could be vicious but also passionate—actually did have an emotional core. Moser's theoretical framework may be too forceful, but he really gets his subject—not an easy task when the person in question is so elusive as Sontag—and he's able to bring out interesting interplays between her work and life, which is what all good biogra ...more
Evidently I liked this enough to read all 700 pages, but it reminded me of Blake Bailey's biography of Cheever in that by the end you really didn't like the subject of the book. Also, not knowing a lot about Susan Sontag beforehand, this didn't convince me of her amazing contributions to American intellectualism. Overall, a strange and disheartening reading experience.
Jan 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
I knew as soon as I started this book it would be important to me....well worth the length...carried the heavy thing around everywhere because I loved it so much ....I learned a lot about Sontag, with only baseline knowledge from reading her famous Writings on camp, diaries etc...I did not realize what a complex and multifaceted person she was...she affected many people, and this book has certainly left me with a lasting impression on life, the pursuit of making and learning alongside each other ...more
Felicia Edens
Who is Susan Sontag? You may have heard her name before. The first time I heard her name was as an undergraduate at Columbia College Chicago while pursuing my Bachelor's Degree in Cultural Studies, probably around 2007. The class was assigned to read Notes on Camp . I'm not sure I understood then, as I'm not so sure I understand it now, but this is what fascinated me: that an intellectual, an intellectual woman, was writing about culture, specifically commercial culture in a completely unique wa ...more
Jim Higgins
Jul 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
An outstanding biography of a complicated writer and person who lived a provocative, messy life. One of the surprises (for me) is how Moser sees some of Sontag's behavior rising out of her being the daughter of an alcoholic mother. Moser doesn't belabor this, but he is clear about it, and it makes sense.
Sep 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: american, biography
I was endlessly fascinated by Susan Sontag before this and probably would’ve read a biography twice as long. But this one does an excellent job of living up to its subject. It offers an honest, perceptive complement to the picture Sontag presented of herself in her journals. Her intense, preternatural intellectual drive is set against the backdrop of a banal Tucson childhood, an alcoholic mother, her lifelong struggle with her homosexuality, and what Moser identifies as a kind of empathy deficie ...more
Nels Highberg
Nov 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Wow. I was blown away reading this. Most biographies follow a simple chronological style. This does that in terms of recounting her life, but the most outstanding thing is that Moser constantly references how that life is reflected in her work, whether in the past, present, or future of the story being told. So many people in the past have either dismissed the personal connections to her work, and many others have dismissed Sontag for not getting personal in her work. This study of her life show ...more
Patrick Boyd
Jul 23, 2020 rated it really liked it
Really enjoyed this deep dive into Sontag's life. Sontag was such a complicated person: difficult, brilliant, and sometimes very cruel (okay, a lot of the time), and Moser really brings out all this out without ever being too fawning. Moved at swift pace, even though I felt like Moser repeated himself sometimes, especially when he goes into psychoanalyzing mode that worked over time in applying trying to depict Sontag the human, and not Sontag the metaphor. Sontag's final days made me cry, and I ...more
Dec 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Should be given five stars for the sheer ambitiousness of the project, honestly. Moser is a skilled biographer, and I learned so much about Sontag's life. Agree w/ the broad strokes of Parul Sehgal's review in NYT though: he can get a little heavy handed when he weighs into debates, and I'm not sure I wanted so much attention to be on Susan Sontag the myth as opposed to her writing
Peter Morgan
Sep 17, 2020 rated it really liked it
Exhaustive. I do worry, though, that he seeks shortcuts to understand her, identities as shorthand (maybe metaphor).

One sentence wraps up the whole book: (paraphrased) “Sontag always hated stable identities, but she was always an alcoholic’s daughter.”

Dec 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography, 2019
P. 480 - Jeff Seroy, head 0f publicity at FSG, once mentioned her (Sontag) to his psychiatrist, only to hear the shrink burst out laughing. Seroy asked what was so funny. The doctor answered: 'You can't imagine how many people have sat on that couch over the years and talked about Susan Sontag.'"

I have heard, not to meet your heroes. Maybe you shouldn't read about them as well. I have admired Susan since my twenties. Moser's book neither completely trashes her, nor does continually praise her. I
Mina-Louise Berggren
Large parts of this made me feel almost paralysed and nauseous, not necessarily because of the book or the subject but the feeling of private conversations being public property. Which unfortunately has not been a foreign subject to me lately, but unfortunately I am not dead.

I keep thinking I would never want a biography to ever be written about me. I’m not Susan Sontag and I don’t know what she felt or would have wanted, and if I remember correctly she also didn’t give the clear go ahead for h
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Benjamin Moser is a writer, editor, critic, and translator who was born in Houston in 1976 and lives in the Netherlands. After attending high school in Texas and France, he graduated from Brown University with a degree in History. He earned his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Utrecht.

He worked at Foreign Affairs magazine and Alfred A. Knopf in New York before becoming an editor at the Harvil

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