publication date: 2011
I was late to learn about the rich and varied life led by film critic Roger Ebert. Of course I was familiar with the thumbs-up/thumbs-down system he created with Gene Siskel to rate movies. But beyond that, I didn’t know much. I didn’t know about his extensive body of written work. I also didn’t know that his bout with cancer in 2006 left him unable to speak, eat, or drink. After he passed away in April of this year, the Internet was brimming with tributes and memorials about Ebert. Many of these contained excerpts from his memoir, Life Itself. The excerpts were always winsome and charming. So I decided to pick up his memoir and read it in full. (By the way, although the subtitle of Life Itself is “A Memoir,” the book reads more like an autobiography than a memoir.)
Although the excerpts I had read were captivating and inviting, the book as a whole fell somewhat flat. First of all, Ebert was an unabashed list-er. He listed everything from the TV shows he watched with his father to people he interviewed and later became friends with. And if Ebert was a consummate lister, I am a consummate list-skimmer. So, whenever a passage contained a list, my mind went on auto-pilot until I noticed that blessed serial comma and focused on Ebert’s writing again. Also, the book contained a lot of material about celebrities and other members of the Hollywood crowd. Many of the people Ebert discussed I had never heard of, but even when I had, I didn’t really care that they drank Heinekens or had mommy issues. These incidental details would give Life Itself a sodden, plodding feel.
The book was at its best during the chapters when Ebert described his own life and feelings. In the first chapter, Ebert is describing his childhood home and running up and down the hallway from the living room to his bedroom. The passage is personal, yet universal. Ebert explains that he returned to his childhood home years later and “saw that the hallway was only a few yards long. I got the feeling I sometimes have when reality realigns itself. It’s a tingling sensation moving like a wave through my body. I know the feeling precisely.” In another similarly satisfying passage, Ebert is discussing the conversations he has with an old friend. Ebert says, “Our conversations all take place in the present tense. We are always meeting for the first time. When you’re young you don’t realize that at every age you are always in the present, and in that sense no older.” The passages like these – the personal, reflective, inquisitive passages – were what gave the book life and wonder.
Life Itself has a lot to offer. Readers who are movie buffs, fans of Ebert, or who enjoy reading about celebrities will find a lot to love in the pages of Life Itself. And Ebert’s prose is often bright and funny. As someone who seemingly lived a life full of travel, melancholy, love, and adventure, Ebert had a lot of wisdom to impart to anyone willing to read his works.
4/6: worth reading