Review: Life Itself

I feel confident that Roger Ebert titled his memoir Life Itself partially so there would be a bunch of reviews titled like this one.

There are a lot of ways to look at Life Itself, but I think I’ll take Ebert’s own tack in assessing it: how did it affect me when I read it? I came away feeling that I’d spent time talking with someone who was colorful and interesting.  The book convinced me that I would like the opportunity to meet Roger and get to know him better.  He seems honest, interesting, and intelligent.

Honesty is necessary for a great memoir.  A writer who spends a couple hundred  pages making press releases or excuses may as well just write fiction.  Ebert doesn’t do this, nor does he write whatever he thinks at the moment.  The book is full of genuine sentiments, arrived at after a lifetime of consideration, and expressed with verve and polish.  That can rob them of some immediacy – his discussion of his personal theology is intentionally measured rather than ecstatic – but overall seems consistent with the man’s character.  I also think an examined, joyful, life clearly and honestly expressed is the best we can hope for.

It also helps to have an interesting life to talk about.  Intellectually, I agree with Scott McCloud that everyone has a story to tell, but in my heart I believe that some people’s lives are just more interesting than others.  Ebert’s clearly done a lot; pulitzer prize winning journalist, television star, leader in the film community, and cancer survivor.  In addition to living a full life himself, he’s interviewed a lot of other standouts.  Life Itself tours all this interesting space.

Finally, he thinks about things well.  Some intellectuals come off as cold because their drive to analyze the world drains their intensity.  Ebert tells you what he thinks without ignoring how he feels.  Few people can think well and maintain both intensity and civility while they explain it.  Ebert is one of them.

If one wanted to be critical of Life Itself, one could point out that it is episodic and lacks overarching structure.  And this is so; it has clearly coalesced from blog posts, rather than being a literary undertaking.  But, so what?  It’s a well-written distillation of a man’s beliefs and the path that lead him to those beliefs.  That’s a pretty good definition of a memoir.

Strongly Recommended.

Comments are closed.