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Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air

3.79  ·  Rating details ·  683 ratings  ·  129 reviews
**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
Hardcover, 416 pages
Published October 29th 2013 by Pantheon (first published January 1st 2013)
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Average rating 3.79  · 
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Le Droit au vol - The right to fly, or rather perhaps how humans lifted themselves into the air using ingenuity, courage, silk, varnish, rope, wicker and coal gas.

Falling Upwards - that sensation and movement of uncontrolled ascent - is subtitled how we took to the air (William Collins UK paperback 2014). It is a superb book in that it does indeed show how men and women took to the air, but also with great insight and human drama it weaves their stories into and alongside those balloons.

I found
Nov 13, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Jorge Luis Borges once said that “reading is a form of happiness.” For days after reading Richard Holmes’s Falling Upwards I walked around with a lighter step and a vague sense of altitude, as if I’d just received a gift or made a discovery that was bound to smooth out all the rough patches of my life, if only I could remember and make use of it. I kept asking myself: What was it that I was so pleased and excited about? No, I hadn’t unexpectedly received a large sum of money, nor had I found the ...more
Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship
I enjoyed this quirky history of 19th century ballooning a lot. I’d previously read this author’s The Age of Wonder, which includes a fun chapter on the 18th century origins of ballooning; this book does not reiterate that material but rather picks up where that chapter left off. It is arranged chronologically and includes plenty of stories of daring, danger, showmanship and science, from the antics of Sophie Blanchard, a Napoleonic Wars-era entertainer who set off fireworks from the tiny gondol ...more
From BBC Radio 4 - Book of the Week:
In this heartlifting book, the Romantic biographer Richard Holmes floats across the world following the pioneer generation of balloon aeronauts, from the first heroic experiments of the 1780s to the tragic attempt to fly a balloon to the North Pole in the 1890s.

In a compelling adventure story, dramatic sequences include an unscheduled early flight over the North Sea, the crazy firework flights of beautiful Sophie Blanchard and the heart-stopping escape of two
Brian Willis
Jun 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I'm pretty certain I will never float into the air in the basket of a hot air balloon. But this book, which I absolutely loved and devoured with ardor, is the next best thing.

Holmes, in his trademark prose that makes for compelling reading, tells the long century of the pioneering of human flight under the balance of hot air or hydrogen within a balloon. We forget that flight didn't begin with Kitty Hawk; human flight truly began with the Montgolfier hot air balloon launched in London in the lat
Sep 02, 2013 rated it really liked it
I lost myself reading The Age of Wonder, the previous book by Richard Holmes, becoming completely caught up in its enticing panorama of the Romantic Age of Europe, when there were still far flung parts of the globe to explore, most of the chemical elements awaited discovery, and poets and scientists looked to each other for inspiration, so I started Falling Upwards with great anticipation and it largely lived up to my expectations.

Like the previous book, Falling Upwards has a mix of art and sci
B. Rule
Jan 12, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I've always felt there's something almost subconsciously fascinating and terrifying about the symbolism of a hot-air balloon. Holmes clearly feels the same and has written a book about the human yearning for discovery through the story of 18th and 19th century ballooning. Like Holmes' "The Age of Wonder", the book is largely structured as a series of biographical vignettes and accounts of famous events through the lens of his chosen topic. I found that approach greatly sharpened in this book (an ...more
Aug 07, 2013 rated it really liked it
Coming to this book with high expectations, it initially disappointed me - the first few chapters seemed to float too close to the ground, weighed down by some leaden puns and sagging anecdotes which left me feeling ... well, deflated. But it pays to persevere. Holmes only really gets into his element in the chapters on military and scientific ballooning, which fully reveal the significance for human self-understanding of "falling upwards" that is the book's real subject. (Those expecting a stan ...more
Jan 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: reread
A fantastic miscellany. The thread of lighter-than-air travel runs throughout, but much like a balloon it drifts here and there, sometimes lurching abruptly in time or place. Overall it's very enjoyable, and touches on some fascinating artefacts -- the Flammarion engraving, Merryweather's Tempest Prognosticator, &c. It's also very good for narrative tension of specific exploits -- early in the book, mostly lacking antagonists except the elements themselves, but later when it gets into the histor ...more
Mar 06, 2020 rated it really liked it
What a quirky niche of history to explore! We all know that balloons are fun, exhilarating, and adventurous. But who knew that balloons were part of reconnaissance in the Civil War? Or provide mail services during some of France’s complicated politics? In a compelling narrative, Holmes breaks down various aspects of ballooning history—pleasure, exploration, scientific breakthroughs, and politics. Recommended for those who love everything Victorian, the spirit of discovery, or French history.

Michael Rumney
An interesting look at historical hot air balloon flight in sections of entertainment, war, exploration and science. Not all of the sections were as interesting as others but there is no doubt Holmes goes into great detail, a bit too much at times in terms of quotes.
There are plenty of illustrations to look at but some are repeated. I did like the extra information at the bottom of the page in some cases. Instead of marking with an asterisk we get a balloon.
In these comments the text becomes mor
Feb 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing
If there's one thing I never ever want to do, it's to go up in a balloon. That said, Holmes' history of balloon flight is a brilliant read, full of inspiring and horrifying stories, major heroes and self-serving publicity hounds. His final story of a Swedish attempt to fly over the North Pole is harrowing. I think I'll try and remember instead Sophie Blanchard in her silver cradle, amusing Parisians with her bravery, or Felix Nadar, who used his balloon Le Geant to break the Prussian blockade of ...more
Feb 09, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Very insightful, interesting historical narrative. The history of Ballooning is a fascinating adventure. The pioneers were great . Both men and women bought the sky with in reach.
S. K. Pentecost
Mar 25, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Falling Upwards by Richard Holmes is a book about the golden age of aviation, written with the love of a hobbyist. It is a book that trips annecdotally through the early history of lighter than air craft. Other authors have refered to the age of lighter than air flight as the cul de sac of aviation; but to men like Holmes and yours truly, it is a cul de sac we might give our eye teeth to live on.

Focusing almost exclusively on unpowered balloons, Holmes's writing vividly recreates scenes of early
Martin Empson
Jul 17, 2015 rated it it was ok
Holmes' earlier book, The Age of Wonder was a masterful history of the era when science and literature were holding out for a new world, where technology might free human kind. It explored the scientists and their circles striving to understand the cosmos. Falling Upwards covers a similar subject and period, but sadly I found it didn't really hold together as a book and came across as a series of anecdotes not worthy of the book's subtitle, however fascinating they might be.

Complete review: http
Kirk Dobihal
Fascinating history of early ballooning. Very informative, well documented, and interesting. Written in a style that makes you feel you are there. My wife read this first and has for a long time wanted to ride in a hot air balloon; these tales may have enhanced that or may have scratched that. Watching the move "The Aeronauts" and telling my brother to watch, as the movie was good; he informed me that the movie was based on the book, Falling Upwards. All I can say is read this book and watch the ...more
Randall Russell
Apr 20, 2019 rated it liked it
A little like ballooning, this book meandered a bit, although there were also some interesting anecdotes. As a warning, I thought this book would deal with the history of powered flight, but it is solely focused on the history of ballooning from about 1780 to 1900. So, it's a sort-of-interesting look at what is now a rather obscure part of aviation history. I would only recommend this book if you're really interested in learning about the history of early ballooning. ...more
Melanie  H
Mar 12, 2014 rated it really liked it
Did I miss my calling as a Victorian balloonist. Clearly, the answer is yes. Oh and I learned about this, true story: after I fly a balloon to the North Pole, I'm going to whip out my circa 1897 camera & die like it ain't no thang ...more
Stephanie Fleming
Apr 02, 2020 rated it really liked it
This was a really neat collection of stories about ballooning. My favorite was the one about Paris with siege balloons, air mail, carrier pigeons, and falcons.
Rebecca Fung
Apr 11, 2021 rated it really liked it
My rating reflects that this is a great, inspiring subject filled with fantastic anecdotes and details, but a bit inconsistent at times. I think the book gets better as it goes on.

I did find it really compelling all up and it made me think more and more about the excitement of balloons and ballooning. I was fascinated by the little details and wanted to share them with others - they were too good to be kept for myself. I do think the author's enthusiasm was infectious.

Also, the illustrations an
Joy D
This is an eccentric book about the history of ballooning from 1783 to present. Holmes covers balloons used in warfare such as the 1794 Battle of Liege, spotting troop movements during the American Civil War, and communicating with the outside world during the 1870 siege of Paris in the Franco Prussian War. He includes balloons used in entertainment, daredevil acts, and of the first ballooning accidents. He mentions balloons in literature, poems, and plays. He details the mechanics, improvements ...more
May 29, 2019 rated it really liked it
Richard Holmes's narrative spans the years between 1790 and 1900 (roughly), when exploration by air meant balloons, largely hydrogen-based structures made of tightly woven silk. While there are a few familiar names, like Montgolfier, most of the stories in the book are completely new to me, and cover the change from early scientific ascents, to popularization of balloon flights for mass entertainment, to a return to a final attempt, in 1897, to reach the North Pole using a meticulously planned a ...more
Feb 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: ballooning
The book is about the early history of ballooning, more or less until airships became popular. Although the very first flight was made in a hot air balloon, shortly after that gas ballooning proved to be more reliable and convenient, therefore the book is more related to the latter. There are many prominent balloonists mentioned, many fascinating stories of how balloons were used for different tasks, all of which is inspiring to know for a balloon pilot. I'm not sure if the book would be so enjo ...more
Sep 09, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: exploration
A fascinating history of flight, and more specifically ballooning before the advent of heavier than air flight which began with the Wright brothers in 1903. The book communicates equally both the thrill and danger that ballooning in this era had, and indeed still does in this modern era.

Holmes has a masterly way with description, making the reader feel as if they are right there with those involved. I personally learnt an awful lot from this book, as it is a subject I didn't know much about befo
This was presented in 5, 13-minute segments. I rated it only 3 stars based entirely on the subject matter, which is interesting, but not something I'd be inclined to pick up and read about. But the stories of the history of this sport (science?) are amazing. I can't imagine what drove these men to embark on what surely they knew was likely to be their death simply out of curiosity or the unlikely chance of making a discovery. (People must have been very bored back then. Kidding, not kidding.) Bu ...more
This is a non-fiction book about how we (as a species as opposed to me personally) learned how to fly in hot air balloons. All those pioneering (and perhaps slightly crazy) men and women who looked up to the sky and wanted desperately to fly like a bird...and then made it happen.

The book takes you on a chronological journey of hot-air ballooning - as a sport, as a hobby, during wartime, and in speculative fiction. Really interesting stuff...and apparently this book was the basis of the movie The
Mar 08, 2020 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Patrick Santana
Dec 16, 2016 rated it really liked it
Here's a case of a book where the 'literary merit' of the work takes a back seat to the sheer interest of the subject matter. Yes, Holmes writes well. But the pleasure of this book goes beyond the style of the writing (which is, by the way, very good). From the first anecdotes to the (tragic) closing chapter of these balloonists and aeronauts, this book was a wonderful experience. ...more
Apr 08, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: dnf
I’ve DNF’ed this book for a few reasons : 1. I left it at work during this whole pandemic and don’t see myself picking it back up once I do go back and 2. While parts were interesting, it was very wordy. I would’ve preferred a history told more through stories but this reads more like a textbook. There were some interesting bits though so hence the 3 stars.
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Play Book Tag: Falling Upwards by Richard Holmes - 4 stars 1 11 May 02, 2021 10:41AM  

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Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the GoodReads database with this name.
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Biographer Richard Holmes was born in London, England on 5 November 1945 and educated at Downside School and Churchill College, Cambridge. His first book, Shelley:The Pursuit, was published in 1974 and won a Somerset Maugham Award. The first volume of his biography of the po

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