Last year, Esquire magazine ran a photograph of Roger Ebert. Unlike many of the images in that glossy men's monthly, it was not particularly titillating - no dewy-eyed starlet, or supermodel. It was the face of a man who had lost a good portion of his lower jaw to cancer, and the surgeries intended to repair the damage wrought by that cancer. Ebert, his eyes still twinkling with mirth, gazes out unhesitatingly, not challenging people to stare so much as expecting them to. "Nobody had seen me quite that way before," Ebert observes of the photograph, which accompanied a lovely, heartfelt story by Chris Jones. "Not a lovely sight. But then I'm not a lovely sight, and in a moment I thought, what the hell, it's just as well it's out there."
Like Tony Judt, another writer and public figure stricken unexpectedly by illness, Ebert has become as famous for the disease that waylaid him as the work that made his name. Before his death in August 2010, Judt wrote a moving memoir, The Memory Chalet, in which he described storing his most precious memories in the rooms of a ski resort fondly remembered from youth as a means of staving off the night-time terrors of being rendered immobile, and sleepless, by Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.
Ebert, no longer able to eat, drink or speak, has also found comfort in his own stable of treasured moments: "In these years after my illness, when I can no longer speak and am set aside from the daily flow, I live more in my memory and discover that a great many things are safely stored away."
Ebert, thankfully, is still very much alive and well after surviving thyroid cancer, and his illness has prompted an unexpected second act. With 548,049 followers (and counting) on Twitter and a substantial following for his blog (where much of this book originated), Ebert has reinvented himself as a permanent denizen of the internet. Rather than turning away from his work, he has renewed his devotion to movies, and to his readers, discovering entirely new ways of communicating with film buffs everywhere.
What happens when a critic, so used to writing about others, begins to write about himself? As a man of images, it is perhaps appropriate that Ebert be most associated with two particularly indelible ones: the man in the balcony, giving the thumbs up (or down); and the man of many opinions, rendered voiceless. Ebert's book is clearly prompted by his new-found Twitter popularity and the public interest generated by the Esquire profile, and yet Life Itself is hardly the cancer memoir we might have expected.
To begin with, it is hardly a memoir at all. Much of the material here originated as posts on Ebert's blog, and Life Itself still feels like a collection of discrete essays, for better and for worse.
Repetition of material from chapter to chapter is rife and some of the subject matter here seems to have little place in a book subtitled A Memoir. Nor is it much about Ebert's condition; those interested in reading only about his illness and recovery are advised to skip to the final 50 pages of the book. But doing so would mean missing out on some of the most enjoyable parts of Life Itself, which is far more about life, and Ebert's undiminished pleasure in living it, than sickness and death.
Life Itself is a full-service book. Those interested in learning the complete - and I do mean complete - lineage of Ebert's extended family will have their curiosity fully satiated. If you need a tip on where to stay in London, Ebert's got that covered (although the hotel itself is now closed). He settles the rumours that he once dated Oprah Winfrey (nope). And he offers more than you ever knew, or possibly ever wanted to know, about the glories of Midwestern hamburger chain Steak 'n Shake.
But Ebert, trained by a lifetime at the movies, is an expert observer, and even the reminiscences of youthful burgers bring him back, inevitably, to his childhood. Remembering the taste of Steak 'n Shake's hot sauce, he remembers of his father that "he liked to dash it on his Chili 3-Way. I would watch in awe as he sprinkled it on and took his first bite. He would glance at me sideways and elevate his eyebrows a fraction. You see why, as a film critic, I am so alert to the nuances of actors."