A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler

by Jason Roberts

Paperback, 2007

Call number

ADV ROB

Collection

Publication

Harper Perennial (2007), Edition: Reprint, 432 pages

Description

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. Drawing on meticulous research, Jason Roberts ushers us into the Blind Traveler's uniquely vivid sensory realm, then takes us on a journey rich with suspense, humor, international intrigue, and unforgettable characters. --From publisher description.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
Fourth-born Britain James Holman was destined for the clergy. Instead, he got bit by the travel bug. Like any decent explorer, James Holman bucked authority. After inexplicably going blind at the age of 25 he refused to stand still. When doctors wanted him to languish in the warmer climates of the Mediterranean for his health, Holman instead ignored their advice and set out for France by himself. Naturally Holman didn't stop there. He joined the Navy to continue his travels through far reaching places such as Siberia and Africa.
Despite Holman's remarkable ability to perceive the world as though sighted he was mostly viewed as a novelty and when he passed away his fifteen minutes of fame were quickly up. Roberts decided to resurrect Holman's biography because he simply couldn't believe the world had forgotten about this remarkable, yet blind, traveler. He best describes Holman as such, "Alone, sightless, with no prior command of native languages and with only a wisp of fund, he had forged a path equivalent to wandering to the moon" (p 320). Pretty remarkable.
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LibraryThing member CBJames
I loved this book.

The story of James Holman (1786-1857) who became blind while serving as a lieutenant in the British Navy. Holman had more wanderlust than probably anyone in history, perhaps even more than Ibn Buttata.

In spite of his blindness, maybe even because of it, he was able to travel around the world, through Siberia, through Brazil and through Africa. He helped fight the slave trade in West Africa; he met the czar of Russia; he climbed to the top of Mt. Vesuvius; and visited every country in Europe, on his own, without knowing the local languages before arriving, and with very little money.

He supported himself through a small pension and through writing about his travels. His books were very popular and he was very famous, but all of that faded away before the end of his life. He died, almost penniless, in a disreputable part of London, just about forgotten. The autobiography he was working on at the time of his death was never published and is now lost.

A Sense of the World is a fascinating read, perfect for the summer. Roberts focuses on the most interesting aspects of Holman's life and travels. While the book is not comprehensive, it is made more entertaining by this fact. We do not have to wade through the details a more scholarly biography would include just to get to the good stuff. Roberts conveys the personality of Holman, his conviviality, his humor, his positive outlook on life and on his situation, not without pathos, but with a sense of wonder and appreciation for all Holman accomplished.
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LibraryThing member CBJames
I loved this book.

The story of James Holman (1786-1857) who became blind while serving as a lieutenant in the British Navy. Holman had more wanderlust than probably anyone in history, perhaps even more than Ibn Buttata.

In spite of his blindness, maybe even because of it, he was able to travel around the world, through Siberia, through Brazil and through Africa. He helped fight the slave trade in West Africa; he met the czar of Russia; he climbed to the top of Mt. Vesuvius; and visited every country in Europe, on his own, without knowing the local languages before arriving, and with very little money.

He supported himself through a small pension and through writing about his travels. His books were very popular and he was very famous, but all of that faded away before the end of his life. He died, almost penniless, in a disreputable part of London, just about forgotten. The autobiography he was working on at the time of his death was never published and is now lost.

A Sense of the World is a fascinating read, perfect for the summer. Roberts focuses on the most interesting aspects of Holman's life and travels. While the book is not comprehensive, it is made more entertaining by this fact. We do not have to wade through the details a more scholarly biography would include just to get to the good stuff. Roberts conveys the personality of Holman, his conviviality, his humor, his positive outlook on life and on his situation, not without pathos, but with a sense of wonder and appreciation for all Holman accomplished.

I am grateful that Mr. Roberts found out about the Blind Traveler and could bring his story to us. I'm giving A Sense of the World five out of five stars.
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LibraryThing member Gwendydd
A fascinating and well-written account of a blind man who managed to travel literally all over the world, despite living in a society where blindness was considered totally incapacitating. Roberts does a good job of coming to grips with how a blind person experiences the world. The main character, James Holman, seems to have been an incredibly personable and likeable person. This is a quick and light read.… (more)
LibraryThing member Stbalbach
A "creative non-fiction" popular biography of James Holam (1786-1837), an English navel officer during the Napoleonic Wars who lost his eyesight and went on to travel (solo) around much of the world at a time when global traveling was a new endevour. He wrote a number of best-selling books and was famous in his time but has since been lost to obscurity -- his life story has been resurected from scant sources by Roberts into a highly sympathetic and loving biography.

This can be a life changing book, it shows how to turn what was considered a disability so severe that he could only be a street begger into a strength and asset that brought him more fame and experience than he probably would have had otherwise, all the while achieving his life ambitions. It also shows what it is life to be blind and how aware of the world blind people are and can be through echo-location clicking.

If you liked "Professor and the Madman" you will enjoy this story.

Couple quibbles. The author Jason Roberts had very few sources to draw on so there are large gaps in the level of detail of Holman's life narrative. It's hard to tell what is authentic Holman and what is Roberts interpretation of Holman, in particular when it comes to Holman's motivations and thoughts. A very enthusiastic and sympathetic biography, there is little critical discussion, in fact Roberts seem to take offense to contemporary critics of Holman without examining it through appropriate historical context (such as Locke's then-popular notions that knowledge is gained through sensory input, etc..). Given the lack of primary sources and corresponding lite number of notes and references it is more akin to a feel-good human-interest magazine feature story. The audience is a popular one, Roberts largely avoids using numbers, such as dates (which I found cumbersome to keep track of chronology), and no numbers marking footnotes. No discussion of the English Grand Tour tradition, which is what Holman did on his first trip to Europe - we are led to believe it was just a random trip - even climbing Mt Vesuvius was a standard Grand Tour destination, Holman basically did what everyone else was doing, which by the 1820s was considered blase. No discussion of colonialism and the role travelers played in creating colonial tropes that are still popular to this day; or the sense of national duty English gentleman travelers/explorers had as a part of English colonialism. There is a lot of scholarly material on English travel literature of this period that would have been useful to put Holman into historical context. This is not a definitive biography, or even a critical one, it is a well told story for a popular audience that will hopefully draw more literary critical attention to this fascinating person.
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LibraryThing member iBeth
I'm always amazed at how someone can be world famous and then a few generations later, completely unknown. The blind traveler, James Holman, deserves to be remembered. He performed intrepid feats of exploration that would have been impressive even for a sighted man; then, Victorians concluded unfairly that his blindness proved he must have been a fraud (i.e., if you can do that while you're blind, it must not be hard to do). I hope someday Holman's last ms is discovered.… (more)
LibraryThing member quirkylibrarian
Fantastic, highly readable narrative non-fiction following the adventures of the "blind traveler", British Naval Lieutenant James Holman as he travels the uncharted world early-mid 1800's.
LibraryThing member Sheila1957
An interesting man who went from being a naval lieutenant who suffered from joint pain then became blind and traveled the world alone. Fascinating! And this all takes place from 1787-1857. James Holman was an apothecary/shop owner's son who was destined to follow in his father's footsteps when family fortunes changed. He goes to the Navy at 12 and expects to be there for the rest of his life but his health turns bad and he must retire on half-salary. He becomes a Naval Knight of Windsor to retain his half-salary. He absents himself a lot from his duties as he travels the world. What is does and how he learns his way around with short funds and limited language skills is remarkable.

I loved that the history of the time is explained and that what is happening in the countries he explores is also given. That he often is on naval vessels and helps is remarkable. I also enjoyed seeing the societal downsides of his times. He is a remarkable man. I am glad the bookseller recommended it as I was checking out. Excellent read!
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LibraryThing member baseballgeek
Great research and story telling.
LibraryThing member untraveller
Wonderful book w/ absolutely loads of relevant information regarding the time period and the Blind Traveler's methodology in his travels. I like to think I've done a lot of non-motorized traveling as well....I pale in comparison.
LibraryThing member Polyphemus
Recently I read "A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler," by Jason Roberts, and my own world has been enormously enriched. It is a great read providing the historical context for the biography of an almost-forgotten nineteenth-century blind hero. This story of James Holman's life and works will be a fascinating read for the blind travelers among us, as well as those who take an interest in things historical, things adventurous, and/or things blind. It is truly amazing to me that a sighted author has told this incredible story in such an effective way, successfully steering clear of the multitude of bogs of boring blind stereotypes. Roberts has done us an incredible service, rescuing Holman from unjust obscurity caused by a combination of sighted jealousy, Victorian arrogance, and his own (Holman’s) funny handwriting. James Holman was clearly a blind bad-ass of the first order, and Roberts is an author fully equal to the task of telling his tale.… (more)
LibraryThing member katekf
A Sense of the World began when the author found a book that mentioned James Holman, the Blind Traveler and wished to read more. As he couldn't find other books, he ended up writing the book himself. James Holman was a Lieutenant in the British Navy during the 1790s and early 1800s who lost his sight and then remade himself. Instead of disappearing into an institution, he learned how to move around the world through following sounds and became one of the most traveled men of his time. This is a rich book full of information about the many ways to approach and see the world. I recommend it highly.… (more)

Pages

432

ISBN

0007161263 / 9780007161263
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