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Falling Upwards
How We Took to the Air
Written by Richard Holmes

Falling Upwards
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Category: Science - History; Transportation - Aviation - History; Travel - Adventure
Imprint: Pantheon
Format: Hardcover
Pub Date: October 2013
Price: $35.00
Can. Price: $
ISBN: 978-0-307-37966-5 (0-307-37966-3)
Pages: 416
Also available as an eBook and a trade paperback.

Falling Upwards tells the story of the enigmatic group of men and women who first risked their lives to take to the air, and so discovered a new dimension of human experience. Why they did it, what their contemporaries thought of them, and how their flights revealed the secrets of our planet in wholly unexpected ways is its subject.

Dramatic sequences move from the early Anglo-French balloon rivalries; the crazy firework flights of beautiful Sophie Blanchard; the revelatory ascents over the great Victorian cities and sprawling industrial towns of Northern Europe; the astonishing long-distance voyages of the American entrepreneur John Wise, and the French photographer Felix Nadar, to the terrifying high-altitude flights of James Glaisher FRS who rose above seven miles without oxygen, helping to establish the new science of meteorology as well as the environmental notion—so important to us today—of a "fragile" planet. Balloons were also used to observe the horrors of modern battle during the American Civil War (including a memorable flight by General Custer).

Readers will also discover the many writers and dreamers--from Mary Shelley to Edgar Allan Poe, from Charles Dickens to Jules Verne--who felt the imaginative impact of flight and allowed it to soar in their work. Most of all, through the strange allure of the great balloonists, Holmes offers another of his subtle portraits of human endeavor, recklessness, and vision.

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

“Holmes has written a book that is as compulsively digestible as the Internet, and yet it is rounder and warmer, and packed with more facts and obscure stories than you would learn if you combed the Web for months. Holmes’s writing is a carnival of historical delights; at every turn there is a surprise, all adding up to a whole. . . . Falling Upwards sneaks the trajectory of mankind into under three hundred and fifty pages, which you can read in short dashes. You may not notice it at the time, but what he is doing is changing the game.” —Rachel Syme, The New Yorker

“The book that gave me the most unadulterated delight this year was nonfiction, Richard Holmes’s Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air. 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, Best Books of 2013

“Out of an ostensibly placid, dreamy activity, hot air ballooning, Holmes conjures an extraordinarily vivid, violent, thrilling history, full of bizarre personalities, narrow escapes and fatal plunges. A peerless prose artist, infectiously curious, Holmes revives such forgotten heroes as Sophie Blanchard, Napoleon’s official aeronaut, and James Glaisher, who in 1862 rode a balloon to 29,000 feet without oxygen in the name of science, and Thaddeus Lowe, who flew over Civil War battlefields, doing aerial reconnaissance for the Union” —Time Magazine, Top 10 Nonfiction Books of the Year

“Far from being a straightforward history of the balloon, this is an uplifting celebration of its aesthetic appeal and its ‘social and imaginative impact,’ of the writing it inspired and of the ‘strangely mesmerizing’ ‘dash and eccentricity’ of the balloonists themselves. . . . . The tone of the narrative is admiring, amused, and elegiac. . . . In its own nostalgic but analytical fashion, Falling Upwards generates the same willing credulity that Holmes enjoys in the balloonists he admires: ‘Indeed, I find it difficult not to fall for them.’” —Graham Robb, The New York Review of Books

“No writer alive and working in English today writes better about the past than Holmes. . . . The stories themselves are remarkable.” —Paul Elie, The New York Times Book Review

“Throughout his book, Holmes’ love for the balloon (a ‘mixture of power and fragility in constant flux’ is his description for it) is obvious. It’ s a fine addition to his already extraordinary oeuvre.” —Mark Gamin, Cleveland Plain Dealer

“British biographer 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.” —Braenna Draxler, Discover

“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’! . . . Richard Holmes’s extraordinary cabinet of drifting aerial wonderment, a book that will linger and last, as it floats ever upward in the mind.” —Simon Winchester, The Wall Street Journal

“Holmes is a charming and impassioned guide…his prose often reaches a moving pitch.” —Tom Beer, Newsday

“British biographer 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.” —Breanna Draxler, Discover

“An unconventional history of ballooning, this quirky, endearing, and enticing collection melds the spirit of discovery with chemistry, physics, engineering, and the imagination.” —Publishers Weekly

“Gripping. . . . Meticulous history illuminated and animated by personal passion, carried aloft by volant prose.” —Kirkus

“In the same month that Julian Barnes published Levels of Life, with its melancholy meditations on balloon flight, Richard Holmes presents a full-blown, lyrical history of the same subject, investigating the strangeness, detachment and powerful romance of ‘falling upwards’ into a seemingly alien and uninhabitable element. Holmes lovingly charts a course from the Montgolfier brothers’ first hydrogen-fuelled flights in the 1780s to the use of balloons by fugitive East Germans in the 1970s and the latest forays by polar explorer David Hempleman-Adams, a history full of awe and inefficiency. . . . Holmes is a truly masterly storyteller .” —London Evening Standard

“Ballooning was among the numerous bold scientific adventures outlined in Holmes’s multi-award-winning best seller, The Age of Wonder. Here Holmes details its history and consequences, starting in the late 1700s and proceeding to the seven-mile-high flights of James Glaisher, FRS, which launched the new science of meteorology.” —Library Journal

“[Holmes] has a rare and infectious capacity for wonderment . . . dazzling. . . . I felt I was flying—with the sensations of hilarity, ecstasy and terror that are rightly provoked by our escape from gravity . . . while I was reading Holmes’s heady, swoopingly, aerodynamic book.” —The Observer

“Richard Holmes’s captivating and surely definitive history of the madness of pre-Wright brothers ballooning.” —The Times

“This is a book in which the delight the author clearly took in researching and writing it carries over to the reader. . . . Puckish is its pleasure in its details and in its gusts of digression . . . he has a lovely wit and ease of address. . . . Above all what Holmes teases out . . . is the very interesting idea that ballooning gave us, quite literally, a different point of view. . . it offers a wholly novel experience of sublimity. . . . This exhilarating book, wonderfully written, generously illustrated and beautifully published, captures all that and more.” —The Spectator

“In this charming, witty and insightful account of windblown ideas and adventures Holmes succeeds neatly in matching his form to his subject.” —Sunday Telegraph

“It is a tragic tale, punctuated with ghastly accidents, but thanks to Holmes’s enthusiasm and eager curiosity it remains valiantly airborne.” —Sunday Times

“Holmes is truly a masterly storyteller and can make the most digressive material cohere.” —Evening Standard

“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

“Endlessly exhilarating. . . . Falling Upwards is packed full of swashbuckling stories, as well as fascinating historical accounts of the use of balloons. . . . It is also a singularly beautiful book, wonderfully designed and illustrated and quite clearly a product of love.” —Mail on Sunday

“His enthusiasm is one of the book’s many pleasures . . . it is hard not to discern something similarly joyous in this second-hand account (of ballooning narratives). . . . Aspirited work.” —The Economist

“(Richard Holmes’s) wonderful history of the early years of ballooning.” —Daily Telegraph

“Beautifully written and lovingly researched.” —Country Life

“Holmes is a distinguished biographer with a fine sense of how individual lives reflect and redirect the larger forces that flow through and around them . . . the aeronauts of the heroic age . . . seem glamorous and admirable in their pursuit of knowledge, fame, fortune, military superiority and sheer excitement.” —The Guardian

“Full of surprises….a book to seek out.” —Toby Lester, American Scholar Review

“The human drama . . . is marvelously handled. Holmes is an astute biographer, and has already shown with The Age of Wonder . . . that he can write about multiple subjects just as well as he can about an individual. . . . He has made a subtle and captivating whole of this series of aerial adventures.” —Lily Ford, TLS


Richard Holmes was Professor of Biographical Studies at the University of East Anglia. He is a Fellow of the British Academy, and was awarded an OBE in 1992. He is the author of the best-selling The Age of Wonder, which won the 2009 Royal Society Prize for Science Writing as well as the 2009 NBCC award for nonfiction, and was one of The New York Times Book Review's Best Books of the Year. Earlier books include Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer, Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage, Coleridge: Early Visions, and Coleridge: Darker Reflections (an NBCC finalist). He lives in England.