The Internet, as you know, is engineered specifically to provide you with endless, elaborate ways to waste your time. Games. Blogs. Porn. It is God’s gift to those who like their entertainment to be as disposable as humanly possible. Take it from me: I’m one of the people whose job it is to make sure of that.
But what Roger Ebert is doing on the Internet right now, at age sixty-seven, after cancer has robbed him of the ability to speak, drink, and eat, is the opposite of disposable. In the twilight of his career, he has become America’s most essential writer. His online journal at the Chicago Sun-Times has become an open Swiss bank vault of ideas, memories, and written imagery. He updates his Twitter feed constantly with brilliant links, to the point of compulsion. You can sense, in everything he writes now, an almost superhuman urgency to write, to connect with everyone out there willing to listen, learn, and explore. To put it in the most basic terms possible, the man is on absolute fire right now.
And the world is taking notice. Chris Jones of Esquire has penned a moving and surprisingly uplifting portrait of the man. If you haven’t read it, go. Go now. I beseech you. You will not regret reading a single word of it. Here is a small snippet:
Roger Ebert can’t remember the last thing he ate. He can't remember the last thing he drank, either, or the last thing he said. Of course, those things existed; those lasts happened. They just didn't happen with enough warning for him to have bothered committing them to memory — it wasn't as though he sat down, knowingly, to his last supper or last cup of coffee or to whisper a last word into Chaz's ear. The doctors told him they were going to give him back his ability to eat, drink, and talk. But the doctors were wrong, weren't they? On some morning or afternoon or evening, sometime in 2006, Ebert took his last bite and sip, and he spoke his last word…
But now everything he says must be written, either first on his laptop and funneled through speakers or, as he usually prefers, on some kind of paper. His new life is lived through Times New Roman and chicken scratch. So many words, so much writing — it's like a kind of explosion is taking place on the second floor of his brownstone. It's not the food or the drink he worries about anymore — I went thru a period when I obsessed about root beer + Steak + Shake malts, he writes on a blue Post-it note — but how many more words he can get out in the time he has left. In this living room, lined with thousands more books, words are the single most valuable thing in the world. They are gold bricks. Here idle chatter doesn't exist; that would be like lighting cigars with hundred-dollar bills. Here there are only sentences and paragraphs divided by section breaks. Every word has meaning.
Do they ever. Just read Ebert’s account of knowing he’ll never eat or drink anything again:
For nights I would wake up already focused on that small but heavy glass mug with the ice sliding from it, and the first sip of root beer. I took that sip over and over. The ice slid down across my fingers again and again. But never again.
Every word is brilliantly chosen. Not a single word or moment is wasted. You can read Ebert now and feel you are in the care of someone who has mastered his craft completely and totally, the way you would watching Jordan play basketball in the early 1990’s, or hearing Radiohead play live now.
There comes an age in every person’s life when they come to realize that time is finite. That, though life can feel awfully long and drawn out, there is only so much left of it to go, and that they had best get to doing the things they want to do. It’s not about realizing your mortality. It’s not about thinking of how death is just around the corner. It’s about realizing that this life, this one life you have, is an astonishing opportunity. It’s about making that realization and setting your sights on living every day with the passion of a thousand men. And that is precisely what Roger Ebert is doing right now. Read it. Savor it. Good stuff like this doesn’t come along all that often.