At the beginning of “Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air,” Richard Holmes announces a literary ambition to match the aerial ambition of his air balloon pilots and pioneers, by offering a lengthy chapter of epigraphs not unlike the long list of quotations that Herman Melville deployed at the beginning of “Moby-Dick.”
There is so much pleasure in them that it is worth quoting a few in full:
“A Cloud in a paper bag.”
-Joseph Montgolfier, 1782
“Someone asked me—what’s the use of a balloon? I replied—what the use of a new-born baby?”
-Benjamin Franklin, 1783
“I would make it death for a man to be convicted of flying, the moment he could be caught.”
-William Cowper, 1794
“How should I manage all my business if I were obliged to marry—I never should know French, or go to America, or go up in a Balloon.”
-Charles Darwin, 1838
“Dear Nadar, I must beg you to renounce these terrible balloon-antics!”
-George Sand, 1862
“The miracle is not to fly in the air, or to walk on the water, but to walk on the earth.”
The delight is amplified by the droll British delivery of audiobook narrator Gildart Jackson, an actor best known for his role as Giles the Butler on ABC’s “Whodunnit.”
Jackson’s understated delivery is a perfect match to Holmes’s sentences, which are larded with the sense of lush wonder that once attended the subject of man taking to flight.
Holmes has written before of balloon flight, most notably in “The Age of Wonder,” which luxuriated in the story of the Montgolfier brothers’ “Cloud in a paper bag.”
“Falling Upwards” does offer similar stories of invention, but this time Holmes is more interested in the history of the human imagination with relation to the emergence of flight, in the romantic ideas that inspired the inventors, in the attitudes of those who lived around them toward ballooning, and, especially, in the expansive writing the balloons inspired.
There is a pleasing abandon to an antiquated language of adventure throughout “Falling Upwards,” beginning with chapters titled fancifully as “Fiery Prospects,” “Airy Kingdoms,” “Spies in the Sky,” and “Mariners of the Upper Atmosphere.” Holmes is less interested in the technicalities of engineering than he is in what they have to do with Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” and the legend of Daedalus and son launching “into the empyrean together” before, 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.”
The more chilling passages in “Falling Upwards” concern the idea of the balloon as an instrument of war, in ordnance carriage, in communication and mail and propaganda delivery, and for spying. There’s sexy talk, too, as in the story of Sophie Blanchard, Napoleon’s Aéronaute des Fêtes Officielles, braving the sky in her low-cut dress.
The demise of the balloon arrived with the invention of the airplane, which was faster and easier to steer. In Victor Hugo’s formulation, the future lay “with the bird, not the cloud.”
But what wonder in the cloud, and the trick of wonder, after all, is in the contemplation of the wonderer. That’s the fun of “Falling Upwards,” an audiobook that rewards the listener’s time with delight upon delight.