Looking over all the books I read in 2013, there's one non-fiction book that really stands out as the best. Former astronaut Chris Hadfield's memoir An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth. wasn't the deepest or most information-packed book I read last year, but it was the most entertaining and involving. And it's core message was compelling enough and it's narrative drive put it right at the top of my list.
While perhaps a bit predictable in it's "science rah rah we all need to take care of the one planet that we all share" storyline that's common to this sort of popular hero autobiography, Hadfield's story oozes the kind of stereotypical Canadian basic decency and humbleness that we Canucks just eat up. (Even if we are more than a little delusional about it. See Ford, Rob and Beiber, Justin.)
And what a story it is. Hadfield covers a lot of territory, from some basic information about his youth through his time at school and as a test pilot. He quickly gets to his life as an astronaut trainee -- the long, arduous training and training and more training. In fact, if there is any recurrent theme in this book, it's "Be Prepared."
The core message of Chris Hadfield's book is that if you want to achieve something difficult, you have to focus on that task and pursue it with laser-like efficiency and a Herculean work ethic. Focus is the key, even if the sacrifices you have to make and the ones that you impose on those around you seem like they might not be worth it, you have to focus. And work insanely hard, be prepared to train and overtrain and retrain until you can do all your assigned tasks in your sleep with two hands tied behind your back while submerged in a tank of water filled with hungry sharks.
Yes, Hadfield stresses the benefits of focus and dedication. But there's also that Canadian humbleness. If there's a second theme that runs through the book, just as important as the first, it's that it takes a village (and three or four countries) to send an astronaut into space. If the astronaut is at the top of the pyramid of effort, she or he can't forget that ultimately they depend on everyone else to get them to the stage where they can actually complete their mission. And that is the message of humbleness. Treat people like their contribution truly matters, they'll be glad to help you. Be an egotistical jerk, and well, not so much.
Which gets us to the parts of the book about Hadfield's various space missions, all told with warmth and gentleness and more than a little sense of wonder. Hadfield is a fantastic story teller, with a nice self-deprecating sense of humour and the book really shines in these later parts, with lots of great stories and anecdotes.
Hadfield doesn't talk a lot about his personal side and mostly when he does it's to praise his wife and family for putting up with a largely absent husband and father during all the long years of training and preparation.
But all that is done now, as Hadfield enters a new stage in his career as author and CBC personality. I sincerely hope he'll find the time to enjoy his personal life a little more but I also imagine he'll be very busy with book tours, speaking engagements and making music.
I recommend this book without reservation. It would make a great gift to any person in any walk of life. Public libraries would definitely benefit from this book as would many school libraries. Academic libraries that collect any popular science biography would do well to consider this one. Even for those that don't, Chris Hadfield's book would make a fine exception to that rule.
Hadfield, Chris. An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2013. 295pp. ISBN-13: 978-0316253017
(Review copy provided by publisher.)