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How We Took to the Air: An Unconventional History of Ballooning

Written by Richard HolmesAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Richard Holmes

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On Sale: October 29, 2013
Pages: 416 | ISBN: 978-0-307-90870-4
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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ABOUT THE BOOK ABOUT THE BOOK
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

**Kirkus Best Books of the Year (2013)**
**Time Magazine 10 Top Nonfiction Books of 2013**
**The New Republic Best Books of 2013**

In this heart-lifting chronicle, Richard Holmes, author of the best-selling The Age of Wonder, follows the pioneer generation of balloon aeronauts, the daring and enigmatic men and women who risked their lives to take to the air (or fall into the sky). Why they did it, what their contemporaries thought of them, and how their flights revealed the secrets of our planet is a compelling adventure that only Holmes could tell.
 
His accounts of the early Anglo-French balloon rivalries, the crazy firework flights of the beautiful Sophie Blanchard, the long-distance voyages of the American entrepreneur John Wise and French photographer Felix Nadar are dramatic and exhilarating. Holmes documents as well the balloons used to observe the horrors of modern battle during the Civil War (including a flight taken by George Armstrong Custer); the legendary tale of at least sixty-seven manned balloons that escaped from Paris (the first successful civilian airlift in history) during the Prussian siege of 1870-71; the high-altitude exploits of James Glaisher (who rose) seven miles above the earth without oxygen, helping to establish the new science of meteorology); and how Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, and Jules Verne felt the imaginative impact of flight and allowed it to soar in their work.
 
A seamless fusion of history, art, science, biography, and the metaphysics of flights, Falling Upwards explores the interplay between technology and imagination. And through the strange allure of these great balloonists, it offers a masterly portrait of human endeavor, recklessness, and vision.

(With 24 pages of color illustrations, and black-and-white illustrations throughout.)

Excerpt

1
My own flying dream began at a village fete in Norfolk. I was four years old. My uncle, a tall and usually silent RAF pilot, had bought a red party balloon from a charity stall, and tied it to the top button of my aertex shirt. This was my first balloon, and it seemed to have a mind of its own. It was inflated with helium, which is a gas four times lighter than air, though I did not understand this at the time. It pulled mysteriously and insistently at my button. ‘Maybe you will fly,’ my uncle remarked. He led me up a grassy bank so we could look over the whole fete. Below me stretched the little tents, the stalls, the show ring with its bales of straw and small dancing horses. Above me bobbed the big red balloon, gleaming and beautiful, blotting out the sun. It bounced off the top of my head, making a strange springy sound, full of distance. It tugged me impatiently towards the sky, and I began to feel unsteady on my feet. I felt that I was falling – upwards. Then my uncle let go of my hand, and my dream began.
 
2
Throughout history, dreamlike stories and romantic adventures have always attached themselves to balloons. Some are factual, some are pure fantasy, many (the most interesting) are a provoking mixture of the two. But some kind of narrative basket always seems to come tantalisingly suspended beneath them. Show me a balloon and I’ll show you a story; quite often a tall one. And very frequently it is a story of courage in the face of imminent catastrophe.
 
What’s more, all balloon flights are naturally three-act dramas. The First Act is the launch: the human drama of plans, hopes, expectations. The Second Act is the flight itself: the realities, the visions, the possible discoveries. The Final Act is the landing, the least predictable, most perilous part of any ascent, which may bring triumph or disaster or (quite often) farce. The ultimate nature of any particular balloon ascent – a pastoral, a tragedy, a comedy, a melodrama, even a sitcom – is never clear until the balloon is safely back on earth. Sometimes it is not clear even then.
 
Even the well-known fable of the Cretan engineer Daedalus and his young son Icarus, so oft en retold as the Genesis myth of flying, is curiously ambiguous in its outcome. It appears originally in Book VIII of Ovid’s long poem Metamorphoses, ‘The Transformations’, completed two thousand years ago, around 8 A.D. Having constructed wings for both of them, Daedalus and son launch into the empyrean together, but famously the impetuous Icarus flies too high; the wax joints of his feathered wings melt ‘in the scorching heat of the sun’, and he tumbles down into the sea. Yet this primal legend of flight is more complex than it might appear.
 
It is often forgotten that in the same Book VIII of Ovid’s poem, Daedalus also has a twelve-year-old nephew (the son of his sister) called Perdix. Perdix is a brilliant and precocious child inventor, loved by all in Crete. But Daedalus, in a crazed fit of grief and jealousy after the death of Icarus, hurls Perdix ‘headlong down from the sacred hill of Minerva’. Yet unlike Icarus, Perdix does not crash to earth and die. Instead, he takes to the air and flies with divine aid: ‘Pallas Athene, the goddess who fosters all talent in art and craft, caught him and turned him, still in midair, to a fluttering bird and covered his body with feathers, so the strength of his quick intelligence sprang into his wings and feet.’ He becomes Perdix, the partridge (perdrix in French), a child who has indeed learned to fly successfully – although unlike Icarus he always remains close to the ground, ‘and does not build his nest in mountain crags’.
 
What may happen while actually aloft is equally mysterious. Balloons have always given a remarkable bird’s-eye or angel’s-eye view of the world. They are unusual instruments of contemplation, and even speculation. They provide unexpected visions of the earth beneath. To the earliest aeronauts they displayed great natural features like rivers, mountains, forests, lakes, waterfalls, and even polar regions, in an utterly new light. But they also showed human features: the growth of the new industrial cities, the speed and violence of modern warfare, or the expansion of imperial exploration.
 
Long before the arrival of the aeroplane in the twentieth century, balloons gave the first physical glimpse of a planetary overview. Balloons contributed to the sciences and the arts that first suggested that we are all guests aboard a unified, living world. The nature of the upper air, the forecasting of weather, the evolutions of geology, the development of international communications, the power of propaganda, the creations of science fiction, even the development of extra-terrestrial travel itself, are an integral part of balloon history.
 
But there are also stranger, existential elements, far less easy to define. The mental release, the physical heart-lift, the calm perilous delight of ballooning – an early aeronaut described it as ‘hilarity’ – is an absolute revelation, but one not easily or convincingly described. I have tried to capture its spirit indirectly, by tying together this cluster of true balloon stories and colourful tales, from the vast ‘history and lore of aerostation’, in the hope that they will bear us aloft for a little while.
 
While airborne, they may also provide a new perspective. The vulnerable globe of balloon fabric is itself symbolically related to the vulnerable globe of the whole earth. There is some haunting analogy between the silken skin of a balloon, the thin ‘onion skin’ of safety, and the thin atmospheric skin of our whole, beautiful planet as it floats in space. This thin breathable layer of air is not much more than seven miles thick – as balloonists were the first to discover. In every way, balloons make you catch your breath.


From the Hardcover edition.
Richard Holmes

About Richard Holmes

Richard Holmes - Falling Upwards

Photo © Photographed by Stuart Clarke

RICHARD HOLMES is the author of The Age of Wonder, which was short-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, won the Royal Society Prize for Science Books and the National Books Critics Circle Award, and was one of The New York Times Book Review’s Best Books of the Year in 2009. Holmes’s other books include Footsteps, Sidetracks, Shelley: The Pursuit (winner of the Somerset Maugham Award) Coleridge: Early Visions (winner of the1989 Whitbread Book of the Year Award) Coleridge: Darker Reflections (an NBCC finalist), and Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage (winner of the James Tait Black Prize). He was awarded the OBE in 1992. He lives in England.

Praise

Praise

“An extraordinary cabinet of drifting aerial wonderment.” —The Wall Street Journal

“Out of an ostensibly placid, dreamy activity . . . Holmes conjures an extraordinarily vivid, violent, thrilling history, full of bizarre personalities, narrow escapes and fatal plunges.” —Time

“No writer alive writes better about the past than Holmes. . . . The stories are remarkable.” —The New York Times Book Review
 
“Holmes has a rare and infectious capacity for wonderment. . . . He tells his balloon stories with inimitable zest. . . . A heady, swoopingly aerodynamic book.” —The Observer (UK)

“Holmes’s writing is a carnival of historical delights; at every turn there is a surprise. . . . He sneaks the whole trajectory of mankind into three hundred and fifty pages.” —The New Yorker.com
 
“Enthralling, picaresque history. . . . Holmes cuts his thrilling set-pieces with haunting images. . . . Appropriately, his prose is lighter than air, elegantly traversing aviators and eras. It means that as his balloonists embark on journeys full of danger and wonder the reader is suspended in the basket alongside them.” —Financial Times
 
“The book that gave me the most unadulterated delight this year. . . . The book is nominally a history of the hot air balloon, but it would be more accurate to describe it as a history of hope and fantasy—and the quixotic characters who disobeyed that most fundamental laws of physics and gave humans flight.” —Chloe Schama, The New Republic
 
 “Holmes’ passion for the topic comes through in this rich and often entertaining chronicle of intrepid vertical explorers who risked (and in many cases lost) their lives lifting human flight out of the realm of mythology and into the air.” —Discover
 
“Holmes is a charming and impassioned guide. . . . His prose often reaches a moving pitch.” —Newsday
 
“Holmes’ love for the balloon . . . is obvious. . . . A fine addition to his already extraordinary oeuvre.” —Cleveland Plain Dealer
 
“A book as delightful as it is unexpected, one that is a testament to the sheer pleasures of writing about what you know, about what excites you and what gives you joy. And what more joyous a topic than the hilarious insanities of ‘Falling upwards’!” —The Wall Street Journal
 
“Gripping. . . . Meticulous history illuminated and animated by personal passion, carried aloft by volant prose.” —Kirkus 
 
“A full-blown, lyrical history . . . investigating the strangeness, detachment and powerful romance of ‘falling upwards’ into a seemingly alien and uninhabitable element. . . . Holmes is a truly masterly storyteller .” —London Evening Standard
 
“The human drama…is marvelously handled. . . . Holmes has made a subtle and captivating whole of this series of aerial adventures.” —Times Literary Supplement (London)
 
 “A captivating and surely definitive history of the madness of pre–Wright brothers ballooning.” —The Times (London), Book of the Week
 
“Endlessly exhilarating. . . . Packed full of swashbuckling stories. . . . A singularly beautiful book, quite clearly a product of love.” —Mail on Sunday (UK)
 
“The delight [of] the author . . . carries over to the reader. Above all what Holmes teases out . . . is the very interesting idea that ballooning gave us, quite literally, a different point of view [and] a wholly novel experience of sublimity. This exhilarating book, wonderfully written, generously illustrated and beautifully published, captures all that and more.” —The Spectator
 


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