Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Books Read in 2011: "Life Itself: A Memoir" by Roger Ebert



This is one of those books that I somehow managed to download in different formats, and the mélange of ways in which to read or listen to the it just kind of allowed me to seamlessly switch between them and work my way through. The bulk was probably listened to as an unabridged download from Audible, narrated by Edward Herrmann, a.k.a. The Voice of the History Channel. I admit that I was kind of impressed, given the difficult task that he had. As I once wrote here about why I would sometimes opt for an abridged version of a book instead of unabridged:
When I'm listening to a book written by a well known person, but read by someone else, I have this strange disconnect going on in my head. I work to replace the voice that I'm hearing with the voice that I imagine should be there instead.
Given that Roger Ebert is no longer able to speak for himself but that anyone who grew up, as I did, watching him on TV and knowing his voice so well can still "hear" him as they read his words, I wasn't sure how it would feel listening to someone else. I'm sure that, had his cancer and the surgeries to remove it and repair the damage not robbed him of speech, Ebert would have read this himself. On the other hand, if those events had not happened, Ebert never would have stopped doing his TV show, never would have started blogging, never would have started Twittering, and probably never would have taken the time to write this book, many chapters of which started as posts on his blog. It would always have remained something in his mind to do in the future, perhaps after he retired, as a summing up. But as this book made clear, he never would have retired—he was, is, and always shall be a newspaperman.

So Edward Herrmann read it instead, and did an admirable job. He didn't do an imitation of Ebert, if such a thing was really possible (although some impressionistic imitations of Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum, and John Wayne make appearances), but he did a respectful interpretation of the cadences of Ebert's writing.  It never felt as though the narrator was fighting with the writer's words.

As for the words themselves, they're good, if not great. And it's a memoir, not an autobiography. I don't know when a distinction started to be made between the two, but I guess a memoir is just that, a collection of memories. Ebert didn't try to collect them to tell a coherent narrative about his life, although they are arranged in a roughly chronological way, but each chapter seems to have a theme of recollection—his mother, his father, the University of Illinois, drinking at O'Rourke's, Gene Siskel, Russ Meyer, Steak 'n Shake, trips to London, et cetera. Those would all obviously overlap in time with one another, which means that the memoir is probably the best way for someone like Ebert to write his story. A politician or a statesman has a chronology, one event follows another in a cause-and-effect relationship. Most of us don't live like that. We think we do, but our lives tend to be much more fragmented. If any patterns exist, they're to be found in concurrent themes, many of which aren't readily apparent until we look back. As Steve Jobs said in his Stanford commencement address: "[Y]ou can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards."