Chicagoans of the Year 2011: Roger Ebert

Silence’s Voice

ROGER EBERT’S JOURNAL AND LIFE ITSELF: A MEMOIR

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It started simply, as another way to reach his readers, a medium through which he could provide a glimpse of the man behind the thumbs-up. For years he had been battling thyroid cancer, and the disease and its repercussions often confined him to a hospital bed. Then, Roger Ebert recalls, “the great day came when [my wife] Chaz and a nurse hauled me and my wheelchair into our car and took me to a screening of the latest Indiana Jones movie. I was back in business. And [in 2008] I started writing a blog.”

True—and Citizen Kane was just a flick about a sled.

In fact, Ebert’s online musings have come to be viewed as the song of a man’s soul, a wide-ranging exchange with readers illuminated by a profound irony: Although cancer robbed Ebert of the ability to physically speak, it has actually liberated and deepened his voice. In the process, he has undergone a metamorphosis from an internationally celebrated critic to a man admired for something far more personal and poignant: his courage, insight, and humanity.

“[His] columns invite you into his life, into his mind, where many scenes of fascination and delight play out,” a judge for the National Society of Newspaper Columnists wrote on the occasion of Ebert winning best online blog for the second straight year. “His insights into innately human concerns impart readers with a wise, worldly point of view.”

Ebert, 69, marvels a little himself at the twists his life has taken—and at the disease that has disfigured and transformed him. The feelings were always there, he says, before paraphrasing Samuel Johnson: “The knowledge that one might be about to die focuses the mind wonderfully.”

Ebert knew he was speaking with a different voice when he received a message from one of his literary heroes, Studs Terkel. “I wrote a blog entry about my memories of childhood, and [Terkel] sent me an e-mail saying he enjoyed it because ‘it was life itself.’” The phrase became the title of Ebert’s memoir, published last fall to great acclaim—the culmination of a remarkable year for a Chicagoan who is more than merely famous. He is beloved. The projector flickers yet.

 

Photograph: Katrina Wittkamp

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