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A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Travelerby Jason Roberts
Synopses & Reviews
He was known simply as The Blind Traveler — a solitary, sightless adventurer who, astonishingly, fought the slave trade in Africa, survived a frozen captivity in Siberia, hunted rogue elephants in Ceylon and helped chart the Australian outback. His name was James Holman (1786-1857) and he became "one of the greatest wonders of the world he so sagaciously explored." In his debut book, A Sense of the World: How A Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler, Jason Roberts brilliantly illuminates the life of this virtually unknown nineteenth century explorer who was renowned for his solo circumnavigation of the world. Po Bronson praises, "This is one of the most fascinating stories I've read in years. James Holman is an inspiration who rightfully deserved to be a legend. Jason Roberts deserves accolades for rescuing Holman's life from obscurity, and recounting it with such respect for the record, and such tenderness of line."
James Holman was the most prolific traveler of his time during an age when the blind were routinely warehoused in asylums and a great deal of the world was still unexplored. As a young naval officer, he was blinded by a mysterious shipboard illness during the Napoleonic Wars. Despite this major deterrent, Holman dedicated his life to wandering, always alone, through the wildest parts of the world. He never knew a word of the local language and he had only enough money to travel in native fashion, in peasant carts, on horseback, and on foot. He became a bestselling author, an inspiration to Charles Darwin and Sir Richard Francis Burton, and achieved near-legendary status, and yet, he outlived his fame and died in obscurity.
Jason Roberts happened upon the subject of James Holman while wandering through the library, when a book titled Eccentric Travelers caught his eye. He soon realized that the chapter about Holman in this slim volume was "the most extensive writing on the Blind Traveler ever published." Roberts did manage to find a few volumes of Holman's own writings in his extensive research, but these cover his life only from 1819 to 1832. Roberts felt compelled to unearth the full story of Holman's life, even going to England himself "to decipher the faded ink of ship's logs, and brush the crumbling wax from broken seals of once-secret documents from Windsor Castle." The result is something "much more than a travelogue. It is a family saga, a warrior's tragedy, a medical mystery, a courtroom drama, a tale of friendships and betrayal, and of many discreet affections."
"In this vibrant biography of James Holman (1786?1857), Roberts, a contributor to the Village Voice and McSweeney's, narrates the life of a 19th-century British naval officer who was mysteriously blinded at 25, but nevertheless became the greatest traveler of his time. Holman entered the navy at age 12, at the height of the Napoleonic Wars. When blindness overcame him, Holman was an accomplished sailor, and he engineered to join the Naval Knights of Windsor, a quirky group who only had to live in quarters near Windsor Castle and attend mass for their stipend. For many blind people at the time, this would have been the start of a long (if safe) march to the grave. Holman would have none of it and spent the bulk of his life arranging leaves of absence from the Knights in order to wander the world (without assistance) from Paris to Canton; study medicine at the University of Edinburgh; hunt slavers off the coast of Africa; get arrested by one of the czar's elite bodyguards in Siberia; and publish several bestselling travel memoirs. Roberts does Holman justice, evoking with grace and wit the tale of this man once lionized as 'The Blind Traveler.' (June)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
"In this vibrant biography of James Holman (1786 — 1857), Roberts, a contributor to the Village Voice and McSweeney's, narrates the life of a 19th-century British naval officer who was mysteriously blinded at 25, but nevertheless became the greatest traveler of his time. Holman entered the navy at age 12, at the height of the Napoleonic Wars. When blindness overcame him, Holman was an accomplished sailor, and he engineered to join the Naval Knights of Windsor, a quirky group who only had to live in quarters near Windsor Castle and attend mass for their stipend. For many blind people at the time, this would have been the start of a long (if safe) march to the grave. Holman would have none of it and spent the bulk of his life arranging leaves of absence from the Knights in order to wander the world (without assistance) from Paris to Canton; study medicine at the University of Edinburgh; hunt slavers off the coast of Africa; get arrested by one of the czar's elite bodyguards in Siberia; and publish several bestselling travel memoirs. Roberts does Holman justice, evoking with grace and wit the tale of this man once lionized as 'The Blind Traveler.' (June)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Before there were cars, long-distance buses, high-speed trains and jet airplanes, there was a man who traveled a quarter of a million miles. He did it by cart, by carriage, by sledge, by ship and by foot. And he did it 'intermittently crippled' and 'permanently blind.' His name was James Holman, and for a time he was the most famous of the many intrepid English travelers who set out for faraway places... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Holman and his heroic achievements are all but forgotten today. Long before his death in 1857, he had faded into lonely obscurity, a relic of a romantic, pre-mechanized age. Jason Roberts first saw mention of him in a slim book called 'Eccentric Travelers.' But Holman's only eccentricity was his urgent need 'to cling to the road like a lifeline,' writes Roberts in 'A Sense of the World,' an eloquent and sympathetic biography of the long-gone voyager. Holman's afflictions were somewhat mysterious. Born in Essex in 1786, he'd gone to sea in the Royal Navy at the age of 12. After three years spent on the damp, frigid deck of the HMS Cambrian, a frigate based out of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Holman developed what seemed to be rheumatism, an old man's illness that afflicted many young sailors. When he sought a cure in Bath, his rheumatic symptoms eased, but he lost his sight mysteriously and completely. Roberts is gruesomely thorough in depicting the perils — mostly from the medical profession — that threatened the blind in the early 19th century. 'In 1811,' writes Roberts, 'even the most enlightened medical professional knew no more about the eye than might a curious butcher.' Cures for blindness included leeches, couching (poking a thick needle into the pupil) and setons (threads sewn vertically between the shoulder blades 'to draw down the head's malignant humors'; they invariably became septic). If none of those methods worked (and it was pure luck if they did), the blind could expect a life of reliance on charity: 'Almost no one wanted to hire the blind. ... Most sighted people were unsettled by (their) presence,' writes Roberts. But Holman rejected every curb on his independence. He refused to wear the customary rag over his eyes, and he developed a surefire way of moving around on his own: a metal walking stick that produced 'an authoritative series of taps' allowing him to navigate by sound. And to avoid outright charity, he finagled a lifetime appointment as a Naval Knight of Windsor, which provided him with lodging and a stipend as long as he attended daily service in the castle's chapel. Holman did not attend chapel for long. His health began to fail, and his doctors conveniently prescribed convalescence in sunny France. It was Holman's first solo journey in a foreign country, and he found it exhilarating. Likely, his doctors did not envision the sort of footloose travel cure that he came to favor. Granted a one-year leave from the Naval Knights, he was away for two, traveling through much of Europe, never staying in one place very long. Travel, he quickly realized, was 'the only thing keeping him alive.' When he returned, he wrote a best-selling book of his journeys that earned him the sobriquet the 'Blind Traveler.' And he began making ambitious (and surreptitious) plans to circumnavigate the globe. His poverty dictated his itinerary — and his wish to circumvent officious friends dictated the secretiveness. He decided to go by land through Russia, traveling like the 'impoverished peasantry ... in simple horse-drawn carts and wheel-less sledges' and saving money 'by engaging no guide or translator, trusting himself to pick up the notoriously difficult Russian language in transit.' His friends would have been right to interfere. 'Reaching the Pacific this way,' writes Roberts, 'meant crossing some of the world's coldest, harshest, and least-charted terrain, lands so bleak that even the more hospitable parts had been serving as a much-dreaded penal colony for almost two centuries.' But nothing could have pleased Holman more, as he later wrote: 'I was engaged under circumstances of unusual occurrence, in a solitary journey of several thousand miles, through a country, perhaps the wildest on the face of the earth, and whose inhabitants were scarcely yet accounted within the pale of civilization; with no other attendant than a rude Tartar postillion, to whose language my ear was wholly unaccustomed. And yet I was supported by a feeling of happy confidence.' And he almost pulled it off, making it as far as Irkutsk, 'the world's most isolated city,' when the czar got wind of the traveling Englishman. Fearing that Holman would discover the extent of Russia's forays into North America, Czar Alexander had the blind man unceremoniously kidnapped and dumped on the Polish border. Holman's Russian troubles weren't over when he returned to England. There, he discovered that a treacherous fellow traveler had leveled charges that would dog Holman for rest of his life. John Dundas Cochrane, known as the 'Pedestrian Traveler,' had made it almost as far across Russia as Holman had, on foot. But in his account of his journey, he made Holman into 'a sort of harbinger marking the end of risk,' asking 'Who will then say that Siberia is a wild, inhospitable, or impassible country, when even the blind can traverse it with safety?' While that charge — that if the blind Holman could make the journey, it was no great traveling feat — became a theme of later reviews of Holman's books, it hardly dampened his wanderlust. Into his sixth decade, he was 'an intrepid invalid (at times simultaneously incapable of standing up and standing still).' He embarked on what was for the Royal Navy 'the deadliest expedition of all time' to the miasmic African island of Fernando Po, an outpost for attacks on the slave trade. From there, he went on to Buenos Aires, South Africa, Madagascar, India, China, Australia and beyond. 'Somewhere in the Atlantic, approaching England, Holman at last completed his circuit of the world,' writes Roberts. Holman died alone in London, a week after finishing the autobiography that he hoped would be his claim to long-lasting fame. That book was never published; his heir lost the manuscript. But at last Holman has an enthusiastic champion. Perhaps too enthusiastic: Roberts is rather quick to defend some of Holman's more egregious errors, including his tendency to pad his books with unreliable accounts of places to which he'd never traveled. And yet his obvious admiration for Holman is right and proper: The man 'could claim a thorough acquaintance with every inhabited continent, and direct contact with at least two hundred distinctly separate cultures,' and he did so by willing himself forward, past every obstacle. Roberts' vibrant prose and meticulous recreation of Holman's world offer modern readers a chance to see what Holman saw as he tapped his way around the globe. Rachel Hartigan Shea is a contributing editor of The Washington Post Book World." Reviewed by Rachel Hartigan Shea, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Roberts...deserves readers' admiration, not only for making each step a pleasure to read, but for opening our eyes to so remarkably forgotten and individual. A polished and entertaining account of an astonishing wayfarer." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"Jason Roberts has brought something great into the world. To know ourselves at all, we have to know about people like James Holman, and this is a brilliantly executed biography of this extraordinary, almost unbelievable man. Where the story of the blind traveler could have been maudlin or corny or draped in historical cobwebs, A Sense of the World is alive, magisterial, suspenseful, frequently funny. Full of wonder and with a commanding sense of narrative, this is one of the best and most life-affirming biographies I've ever read." Dave Eggers
"I found this book astounding. That James Holman managed to perceive so much of his world is a triumph only slightly grander than that of Jason Roberts, two centuries later, recreating that world so vividly, accurately, and compellingly that you feel you are not reading a life, but seeing it." Mary Roach, Stiff
"This is one of the most fascinating stories I've read in years. James Holman is an inspiration who rightfully deserved to be a legend. Jason Roberts deserves accolades for rescuing Holman's life from obscurity, and recounting it with such respect for the record, and such tenderness of line." Po Bronson, author of What Should I Do With My Life?
"Enthralling...inspiring." Time magazine
"A well-written popular history that will appeal to an audience interested in stories of individuals triumphing over physical difficulties." Library Journal
"A Sense of the World is a vastly entertaining, always informative and often astonishing account." San Francisco Chronicle
"Roberts has done a remarkable job of resurrecting Holman from obscurity, painting a portrait of a complex and compelling persona against the background of his life's journeys." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
He was known simply as the Blind Traveler — a solitary, sightless adventurer who, astonishingly, fought the slave trade in Africa, survived a frozen captivity in Siberia, hunted rogue elephants in Ceylon, and helped chart the Australian outback. James Holman (1786-1857) became "one of the greatest wonders of the world he so sagaciously explored," triumphing not only over blindness but crippling pain, poverty, and the interference of well-meaning authorities (his greatest feat, a circumnavigation of the globe, had to be launched in secret). Once a celebrity, a bestselling author, and an inspiration to Charles Darwin and Sir Richard Francis Burton, the charismatic, witty Holman outlived his fame, dying in an obscurity that has endured — until now.
A Sense of the World is a spellbinding and moving rediscovery of one of history's most epic lives. Drawing on meticulous research, Jason Roberts ushers us into the Blind Traveler's uniquely vivid sensory realm, then sweeps us away on an extraordinary journey across the known world during the Age of Exploration. Rich with suspense, humor, international intrigue, and unforgettable characters, this is a story to awaken our own senses of awe and wonder.
About the Author
Jason Roberts is the inaugural winner of the Van Zorn Prize for emerging writers (sponsored by Michael Chabon) and a contributor to the Village Voice, McSweeney's, the Believer, and other publications. He lives in Northern California.
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