From our point of view, it’s been a weird year, not least because it held 53 weekly issues instead of the normal 52. That calendar anomaly didn’t really have any measurable affect on us, but it is making the annum feel long right about now.

The country has been at war all year now, with no end in sight and not, seemingly, much we in Montana can do about it. The spectacle of it has surely diminished our enjoyment of the vaunted views.

And now on Tuesday comes the news that Susan Sontag is dead of leukemia at 71, overshadowed in her passing by the deadly waves in Asia. Sontag surely could have made hay with the Tuesday Yahoo news headline that replaced the briefly highlighted notice of her passing: “Celebrities affected by tsunami.” A German supermodel, apparently, clung to a tree for hours before being rescued and remains “in pretty bad shape.” Readers are led to understand that the island where Leonardo DiCaprio filmed The Beach has been hit hard.

It’s curious to see, from a journalistic perspective, what journalism is compelled to deem compelling.

At last count, deaths from the disaster had tallied over 75,000, and several whole countries had yet to report casualties. Aid organizations are struggling to mount what’s already being called the largest disaster assistance effort in the history of the globe. And all we seem to care about is whether the famous people are okay.

Sontag was vilified after 9/11 when she published a short piece in The New Yorker suggesting that Americans might do well to explore the possibility that perhaps our freedoms weren’t so much under attack as our policies, and the understandable global reactions to them. For this, it was suggested, and not for the first time, that Sontag was akin to a traitor. And thus began the latest round in the continuing battle for the soul of political America: intellectualism versus distrust of too much learning; questioning, or accepting.

Sontag’s style was questioning. She started in gray areas—photography, “camp,” cancer, foreign policy—and often arrived at interesting answers. It’s an approach that seems to be going out of style in favor of blustering, un-self-examined punditry, and it’s sad to see it—and her—go. Never mind that we’ve had a horrible crush on her for 15 years. Not that we ever placed that personals ad in The New York Review of Books or anything.

So this is issue #53, and it’s largely a look back. Next week is issue #1, and there we start looking forward to the new year, and to asking some new questions. We hope you’ll let us know if you find any answers.

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