Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 7.1 (2005) 186-187
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Regarding the Pain of Others originally appeared in The New Yorker under a different title, "Looking at War." Now a stand-alone volume, this essay extends the work Sontag began in On Photography,examining the role that images—particularly violent ones—play in shaping our minds and actions. Though her subject is photography, the essay is about much more than cameras. After all, most wars have also been rendered in words. As Sontag notes: "Being the spectator of calamities taking place in another place is a quintessentially modern experience, the cumulative offering by more than a century and a half's worth of those professional, specialized touristsknown as journalists. Wars are now also living room sights and sounds."
This journal alone has reviewed many books that deal with war and its aftermath. What are we to make of these ubiquitous accounts of brutality? The question takes on special importance after the 9/11 attacks, which Sontag frequently cites.
Sontag is a superb essayist, and her prose reflects the subject's complexity, enfolding many perspectives in its arguments. Along the way, Sontag considers [End Page 186] matters of "taste" in publishing, reviews the history of realism, and rebuts the notion that mass media makes readers less compassionate. She entertains the opinions of thinkers as varied as Leonardo de Vinci, Francisco Goya, Virginia Woolf, and Mathew Brady, all of whom were well acquainted with tragedy. For all her learning, Sontag is remarkably blunt and accessible, and it requires little imagination to see the relevance this book has for partisans of creative nonfiction.