Adam Wiggins's Reviews > David Attenborough's Life on Air: Memoirs of a Broadcaster

David Attenborough's Life on Air by David Attenborough
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's review
May 12, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: adventure-story
Read in May, 2012

David Attenborough is one of my personal heroes. He has an unquenchable curiosity about the natural world and anthropology of tribal cultures; a quiet passion for public service; a talent for applying new technologies as they become relevant to his work; and an incredibly dry sense of humor that weaves throughout every story he tells. And he is a born story-teller.

He virtually invented the modern nature documentary with "Zoo Quest" in the 1950s, and continued to push the envelope in this field for fifty years, culminating with his masterworks, "Planet Earth" and the "Life of .." series. His works are head-and-shoulders above all other nature documentaries.

I find the arc of his life story inspiring. He began by joining television when it was still a tiny and mostly ignored industry, a runt kid sister to the behemoth of radio. After pioneering the nature show format and spending much of his young adulthood tromping through jungles, he became a BBC administrator and spent his middle years helping TV as a medium expand. In his later years he found himself tromping through jungles again, exploring the remotest corners of the world even into his early 80s. It's hard not to admire this unswerving, lifelong dedication to one's craft.

Perhaps what I enjoy most about Attenborough is his ability to tackle complex and emotional subjects without the slightest tone of judgement or overbearing emotion. This seems a rare gem in a world filled with shrill, polemic works attempting to convince the reader or watcher of their point of view. Attenborough does have strong viewpoints: he's a passionate conservationist and protector of native cultures and the wonders of the natural world. But he never states this in his works, not even here, in his autobiography. He presents the facts as clearly and accurately as he can and lets the audience draw their own conclusions.

As for Life on Air itself, my one complaint would be that his detached approach applies here as well. He narrates his own life in a series of amusing vignettes, just as if he were describing the curious behavior of a particular lizard or primate on one of his programs. He gives only the briefest mention of personal moments which shaped his life, such as showing his fossil collection to a visiting friend of his parents as a child, or the sudden death of his wife after over forty years of marriage.

But this is a minor point. If you admire Attenborough's works, his autobiography is worth your time.
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