Award-winning author Richard Holmes is well known for his biographies of Romantic poets, as well as his 2009 bestseller, The Age of Wonder. In his latest book, Falling Upwards, Holmes turns his attention to the fascinating history of ballooning, documenting more than two centuries of experiments and explorations in aeronautics, anchored with a dash of autobiography. Our reviewer declares: "Erudite and chatty, this is a book for everyone who has ever dreamed of flying." (Read the full review here.)
We were curious about the books Holmes has been reading lately, so we asked him to recommend three recent favorites, which he graciously agreed to share:
For nearly 40 years I have written biographies of Romantic poets, but in the last decade I have become fascinated by biographies of Romantic scientists. It turns out that they are an equally wild bunch of characters! In fact there are many similarities between them—the idea of the brilliant “creative moment” is common to both groups, and so is a certain kind of inner solitude and daring. I am always on the lookout for unusual imaginative ways of exploring this endlessly intriguing (and relevant) subject. So here are three of my current favorites, each using quite different approaches to the Life Scientific: autobiography, fiction, poetry.
HOW A CHILD BECOMES A SCIENTIST
Edited by John Brockman
I keep diving back into this collection of 27 quirky autobiographical essays, each about 10 pages long, in which distinguished modern scientists do something very unusual for them: They look back at their own childhoods and try to define what first set them ticking. They include Richard Dawkins reading Doctor Doolittle books in South Africa; the cosmologist Paul C.W. Davies seeing the star Sirius glimmering through winter trees; and Mary Bateson learning genetic circuit patterns while putting up Christmas tree lights. Other notable memories come from Freeman Dyson, Lynn Margulis and Steven Pinker—who characteristically doubts the psychological authenticity of the whole project. Uneven in writing quality, but endlessly intriguing and often disarmingly funny.
By Andrea Barrett
I first discovered Andrea Barrett through her haunting novel of 19th century polar exploration, The Voyage of the Narwhal. But then I found she also wrote short stories about scientists, which seemed even more intense and thought-provoking. Barrett has the gift of making science history feel extraordinarily fresh, moody, sexy and strange. Here, you will meet old Carl Linnaeus and his “English Pupil” in wintry Sweden; young Alfred Russell Wallace going mad in the steaming Amazon; or the idealistic Victorian doctor Lauchlin Grant (who is pure fiction among several authentic historical characters) struggling on a remote Canadian quarantine island with a public cholera epidemic (emigrants from the Irish famine) and private heartbreak. Absolutely gripping. I now see that this won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1996, and I’m not surprised. I also hear Barrett has a new collection, Archangel, just out this fall. I can’t wait.
DARWIN: A LIFE IN POEMS
By Ruth Padel
Having clambered through several huge scholarly biographies of Charles Darwin during his recent bicentenary, I was delighted and astonished to come across this wonderful, short, quicksilver book. It is nothing less than an intimate look at the life of the great naturalist in 160 pages—but written entirely as a sequence of poems. Brilliantly inspired by Darwin’s own letters, often in Darwin’s own imagined voice, its emotional center is Darwin’s stoic marriage, shaken by the divisive problem of his wife Emma’s religious beliefs, and torn by the terrible death of their 10-year-old daughter Annie. There is plenty here to give both Evolutionist and Creationist something to think about, and from a new perspective. It turns out that distinguished poet Ruth Padel is not only a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the Zoological Society (London), but also Darwin’s great-great-granddaughter. Well, that’s Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics for you.
What do you think, readers? Will you be checking out Falling Upwards or any of Holmes' recommended books?