I do not know Roger Ebert personally, though I once spoke to him on the street at the Toronto Film Festival some years ago — he had written something nice about a website I worked for, and I wanted to thank him — and he was kindness personified. But I read him often and think of him often, as if I know him — and as, I think, many of us do. We grew up watching him on television; we enjoyed his reviews and books and “Answer Man” columns; we learned, horrified, of his battle with cancer that began eight years ago and that has robbed him of his ability to speak and eat, which he has faced with the kind of courage we see in movies about heroes. And, in recent months, we may have been reading his online journal , where he steps beyond movies to wherever his nimble mind wishes to fly.
Chris Jones, at Esquire magazine, has written a lovely portrait of Ebert, focusing on what his life is like now and including this passage about how Ebert’s online journal began to take flight — how a man who could no longer talk found a new audience and, along the way, his old voice:
But slowly the journal picks up steam, as Ebert’s strength and confidence and audience grow. You are the readers I have dreamed of, he writes. He is emboldened. He begins to write about more than movies; in fact, it sometimes seems as though he’d rather write about anything other than movies. The existence of an afterlife, the beauty of a full bookshelf, his liberalism and atheism and alcoholism, the health-care debate, Darwin, memories of departed friends and fights won and lost — more than five hundred thousand words of inner monologue have poured out of him, five hundred thousand words that probably wouldn’t exist had he kept his other voice. Now some of his entries have thousands of comments, each of which he vets personally and to which he will often respond. It has become his life’s work, building and maintaining this massive monument to written debate — argument is encouraged, so long as it’s civil — and he spends several hours each night reclined in his chair, tending to his online oasis by lamplight. Out there, his voice is still his voice — not a reasonable facsimile of it, but his.
“It is saving me,” he says through his speakers.
Read the story; it’s a tribute to a remarkable man. I like to think of him, sitting in a quiet pool of lamplight late at night (like an author writing by candlelight long ago), speaking to his community of online readers and friends and inspiring them with his presence. Here’s looking at you, Roger. Thanks for the words.