“My love for physical books is old and deep. I also love audiobooks and have listened to probably 300 of them. Sometimes they stay with me better than the printed ones.”
Talking with Roger Ebert
“I’ve been a lifelong reader,” says Roger Ebert in his blog (blogs.suntimes.com/ ebert/2011/08/my_new_voice_belongs_to.html). “My love for physical books is old and deep. I also love audiobooks and have listened to probably 300 of them. Sometimes they stay with me better than the printed ones.”
The Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and author is an accomplished storyteller. Anyone who read his columns in the Chicago Sun-Times or caught his televised duels on the state of film art with the late Gene Siskel is already familiar with his ability to weave a tale. While his recent health challenges have left him without the ability to speak, his words still resonate in a slightly different manner.
The audiobook presentation of his autobiography, LIFE ITSELF, narrated by illustrious actor Edward Herrmann, has given Roger Ebert his voice again. “He was my first choice,” Ebert tells us in an email interview. “I love his voice. Just today I received the completed audiobook, started playing it to sample it, and couldn’t stop listening. I knew the words, but he made them new. He has a perfect control of emphasis and timing. This represented the first time I was happy that I can no longer speak because if I’d read the book myself, it would not have been nearly as good. I would have tried to ‘sell’ my writing, as one tells a joke. He allows the material itself to speak, and his command of tone is flawless. Herrmann is wonderful.”
Ebert has always been interested in audiobooks, since he believes they reflect the origin of storytelling. “It creates images in the mind, as radio drama does.” Having his audiobook produced was also an intense emotional experience for him. “It certainly was. I can hardly describe the pleasure I had in listening to it.”
When asked to identify his favorite audio presentations, Ebert quickly supplied the answer. “The best I’ve ever heard is PERFUME, by Patrick Susskind, read by Sean Barrett. I also loved THE DIARIES OF SAMUEL PEPYS, read by Kenneth Branagh, because he animates the prose with a confiding tone, as if Pepys were sharing his day in the evening, in front of the fire.”
LIFE ITSELF follows Ebert from his earliest days in Urbana, Illinois, to myriad adventures all over the world. Not surprisingly, most of these escapades have to do with the movies. The book begins, “I was born inside the movie of my life. The visuals were before me, the audio surrounded me, the plot unfolded inevitably but not necessarily. I don’t remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me.”
His love affair with film has its origins in an unusual place, which Ebert talked about in his introduction to Mad magazine’s Movie Parody Issue and in a posting on Thought Catalog. “I learned to be a movie critic by reading Mad magazine. Mad’s parodies made me aware of the machine inside the skin--of the way a movie might look original on the outside while inside it was just recycling the same old dumb formulas. I didn’t read the magazine; I plundered it for clues to the universe. Pauline Kael lost it at the movies; I lost it at Mad magazine.
Told in a funny, frank manner, his stories about films and the people who made them contain a diverse cast of legendary filmmakers and stars, including Russ Meyer, Lee Marvin, John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Werner Herzog, Ingmar Bergman, and Robert Altman.
A man of his experience and talent must often be asked to comment on the art and science of journalism and writing and to give advice to the generation who now embrace blogs, a 24-hour news cycle, and the Internet as their journalistic world. What advice does Roger Ebert have to offer to young writers today who are trying to accomplish what he has? What kind of experience do they need? What would he tell them? His answer would surprise no one. “Read books.”
His life, it would seem, is still chock full of great adventures. Those adventures, while told in someone else’s voice, will continue to be told in his own words.--Martie Ramm Engle