Honestly, Ebert reviews life on his terms
One of the countless little gems in Roger Ebert’s splendid new memoir, Life Itself, appears in the chapter on his alcoholism and his 32 years of sobriety. Recalling his life-saving association with Alcoholics Anonymous, he tells of an incident one night while he was moonlighting as a movie critic for a local TV station’s 10pm newscast:
“Funny things happened,” Ebert writes. “The anchor was an AA member. So was one of the reporters. After we got off work, we went to the 11pm meeting at the Mustard Seed. There were maybe a dozen others there. The anchor took the chair and asked if anyone was attending his or her first meeting. A guy said, ‘I am. But instead I should be in a psych ward. I was just watching the news, and right now I’m hallucinating that two of those people are in this room.’ ”
Like the man himself, there’s a lot to love about this warm, funny, insightful and thoroughly engaging book. At its heart, it’s an autobiography of a life well lived. But it’s much more than that: a love story about his devoted wife, Chaz; a remembrance of his late, great television partner, Gene Siskel; a flashback to his idyllic youth and carefree younger days as a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaperman on the town; and reflections on the stars, filmmakers and cast of unforgettable characters who left their mark on him and, by extension, on his readers.
Despite the unimaginable challenges that he’s faced in the past five years since his health problems robbed him of his voice and his ability to eat and drink, Ebert knows he’s lived an amazingly rich, full life for an only child of working-class parents from Urbana.
Having cheated death only through the indomitable force of his wife’s love, Ebert writes movingly of his mortality:
“I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. I am grateful for the gifts of intelligence, love, wonder and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.”
Given the brilliance and vitality of his work in print and especially online since he lost his power of speech, here’s hoping Roger continues to share his great gifts with us for many, many years to come. Life Itself leaves us wanting so much more from him.