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What I'm Reading (No. 63): balloons and books
This week I finished a wonderful, obscure little book about the epic age of ballooning (yes there really was one), which came right before the Space Age. There's a fun story behind the book that I'll get to in just a bit.
And there's another book on my mind this week too; one that I haven't finished, but that I've been flipping through for a couple months now and have really enjoyed.
Let's do it.
The Pre-Astronauts by Craig Ryan
My wife has this wonderful ability to buy me obscure-ish history books that nobody has really heard of, but are absolutely a joy to read. A few years back it was Climb to Conquer, about the 10th Mountain Division — the ski troops — that served in WWII. Superb book.
This year for my birthday she somehow snagged a used copy of The Pre-Astronauts that . . . wait for it . . . was signed by Joe Kittinger, the most famed balloonist of them all! This fact wasn't included in the description of the book, and even though the signing is made out to Dennis, it's amazing nonetheless. (It's also signed by Eli Beeding, who's decidedly less famous.)
Before humans went to space, we went to the stratosphere. And in balloons no less. It's wild really — these gas-filled teardrops ascending up to 70,000 . . . 80,000 . . . 100,000(!) feet up in a tiny gondola.
And then, for a variety of scientific and not-so-scientific reasons, sometimes those courageous aviators jumped out.
Joe Kittinger was the most famous of the jumpers, and until Felix's 2012 jump, held the record for highest skydive when he jumped from 102,000 feet up — on the very edge of space.
These balloonists were the first to witness the curvature of the earth. The first to describe the surreal beauty of the upper reaches of the atmosphere. The first to test new types of parachutes and other technologies which made these epic feats possible in the first place.
The characters in The Pre-Astronauts lack the name recognition of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and John Glenn, and yet were some of the bravest men to ever take to the skies.
This was such a wonderful book, particularly for a minor aviation nerd like me. This year, the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, it's especially appropriate. John Paul Stapp, David Simons, Joe Kittinger — these heroes set the stage and in many regards made possible the world-changing feats of those Space Age heroes.
I've already ordered another of Craig's books: Magnificent Failure.
1,000 Books to Read Before You Die by James Mustich
For a book nerd, this list is a dream come true. Most book lists out there — especially anything with "Best" in it — are a bit snobby in nature. They're all basically the same, and they're almost always heavy on the fiction and heavy on the old stuff.
What makes Jim's list of 1,000 books so great is that it encompasses all genres — classics, crime thrillers, sci-fi, history and biography, even children's books. It's entirely different from other book lists you've ever seen. As he said in our Art of Manliness interview with him, sometimes you want to eat a fancy dinner at a posh restaurant and sometimes you want to eat a hot dog from a street vendor. 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die satisfies both of those appetites.
This is not really a book to read from cover to cover as you would a "normal" book. (Though you sure can.) It's one that's particularly fun to browse while sitting on the couch at night, to just flip through now and then, especially when you need a new read.
I've perused a lot of "Best Books" lists. Like truly a lot. Perhaps bordering on embarrassing. So I'm pretty familiar with what's generally considered to be the best of the best when it comes to classic and "best" reads. And yet Jim's collection loads of books that have never even scratched my radar, and seem absolutely wonderful.
To a bibliophile, few things are more fun than encountering a book you've never heard of, and totally enjoying it (much like The Pre-Astronauts!). Plus, the list does include all my classic favorites, validating my own tastes and also allowing me to trust Jim's opinion. You should too.
This is such a fun book to flip through. Get a copy for yourself, or for anyone in your life obsessed with reading.
Two more final things:
Listen to our AoM podcast with Jim; it's delightful.
Subscribe to Jim's newsletter. It's a marvelous collection of book recs, book lists, and a look at not only Jim's other bookish writings, but also his personal marginalia from what he's reading. It's excellent.
That's all for me this week. As always, I'd love to hear what you're reading, and thanks for your inbox space.