Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963
by Susan Sontag
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 304 pages, $24)

Susan Sontag was not a typical teenager. Yes, the future novelist and essayist experienced dizzying infatuations. (“The Magic Mountain is the finest novel I’ve ever read,” she wrote in her diary at 15.) She also disdained her elders. (James Joyce, she noted in a later journal, was “so stupid.”) But Sontag was a peculiar prodigy: At 16, she was already a university freshman and certain of the adult intellectual she wanted to become. That year, she was “reborn,” as she put it, by her first sexual experience with a woman: “I know what I want to do with my life,” she wrote hours later. “I intend to do everything … everything matters! … I am alive ... I am beautiful … what else is there?”

That galvanizing passage is “moving on several levels,” said Sam Anderson in New York. The Sontag the public knew years later was as avid about life and learning as her teenage self, but otherwise she had failed to fulfill her expectations. At 16, she thought bisexuality would be easy. At 17, she married sociologist Philip Rieff and found marriage untenable. At 16, she vowed not to “worship knowledge.” By 30, she was a widely read “high priestess of knowledge-worship,” soon to become “America’s reigning intellectual.” What remains most constant throughout this first published volume of her journals is Sontag’s determination to create, through hard work and self-criticism, a public persona impervious to all arrows. “Against all odds,” that effort makes the Sontag of Reborn “a deeply lovable character.”

Reborn is by no means an autobiography, said Deborah Eisenberg in The New York Review of Books. Because Sontag was writing for herself, the narrative of her life from age 14 to 30 “often disappears behind a cloud.” She meets Rieff, marries him, and raises their son to age 4 in roughly three isolated sentences. What readers get instead are lists of habits to acquire and books to read, long passages on numerous affairs with women, bursts of sharp critical opinions, and always that “unhesitating sense of purpose.” It makes for an “extraordinary” window on a singular woman, said Katie Roiphe in “How is it possible,” you wonder, “that anyone is this self-conscious?” And “how is it possible that this degree of self-consciousness could be so fruitful?”