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A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler Hardcover – May 30, 2006


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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. 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)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School–An engaging account of a most undeservedly obscure figure. The book itself is a fortuitous happenstance; had a certain volume not caught Robertss eye during a wander break through the stacks on a library visit, the story of Lieutenant James Holman, known to his contemporaries as the Blind Traveler, might still be lost to a modern audience. Born in 1786, Holman began service in the British navy at the age of 12. The rigorous lifestyle ravaged him physically; by age 20, pain had left him nearly incapacitated; five years later, he was blind, ill, and strapped for funds. Holman pursued a course–travel–that proved the best remedy. The Blind Traveler traversed the globe, encountering a plethora of colorful characters and gaining short-lived fame, if not fortune, from his narratives and memoirs. Roberts re-creates each journey, both geographical and physiological, providing insights into 18th-century beliefs, mores, and worldly knowledge, along with a ghastly array of cures inflicted on Holman by practitioners of medicine. The admiration and respect that the author feels for his subject are unmistakable, but in no way diminish the accomplishments of the most restless man in history. Black-and-white reproductions show Holman as he was depicted by contemporaries during his travels. This volume is an obvious addition to any number of booklists, from biographies to nonfiction that reads like fiction.–Dori DeSpain, Fairfax County Public Library, VA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; First Edition edition (May 30, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007161069
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007161065
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (65 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,368,082 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars
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I am revising my review as the book is now available on audiobook!
Kat
It is epic, magical, dramatic, a true and inspiring story about the human capacity to overcome adversity and loss.
Helga Fleishman
One of those rare books that is both a true story and an absolutely thrilling read.
Nigel Craig

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 30 people found the following review helpful By D. Buxman TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 8, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is one of the best books you could hope to read this year. If you ever think that circumstances could stop you from living a full life, the story of James Holman will have you re-thinking the limits of what can be achieved. In an age in which the blind were institutionalized in insane asylums, Holman managed to travel the globe by himself and on a very limited budget. In the process, he was able to actually experience cultures in a meaningful way, even though he could not see. This book is hard to put down. It is well-written and the tone is not sensational, even though the subject is.In addition to being a great story, I found personal inspiration beyond the scope of many self-help books. I'd give it 6 stars if I could.
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Po Bronson on June 11, 2006
Format: Hardcover
If you've got this far down the Amazon page, you probably already know that this book is about an English guy who goes blind in the early 1800s, and then he falls ill - and the only thing that seems to heal him is exploring abroad. He doesn't have any money, and there are no conveniences for the blind available whatsoever, but he ends up traveling all over the world. For me, that concept hooked me - how'd a blind guy do that, back then? The only question about this book then was how well Jason Roberts would write. The answer is his writing is better than I ever hoped for. The prose is crisp. It hints of that era, by picking up some words and turns of phrases, but it never overpowers us with an ornate old style. Roberts does not invent scenes or write as if he were somehow a witness to events that nobody recorded - every single detail is sourced to genuine historical documents. This was refreshing. Not slow paced like history books, and yet not "imagined" like many memoirs and biographies. The result is a page turner with credibility. He kept me wondering "how's this blind guy in a bed ever going to become a world traveler?" And then, once he was traveling, I was equally hooked on the question "How come this guy was forgotten by history?" Both hooks pay off. Truly fascinating. I rank it up there with Seabiscuit and Shadow Divers.
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28 of 31 people found the following review helpful By R. Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on July 11, 2006
Format: Hardcover
It is nothing to meet a round-the-world traveler these days; plenty of people travel globally for business or pleasure. Travel was not, of course, always so easy, and so it is amazing enough that in 1822, James Holman, a former lieutenant of the Royal Navy, set off from England to walk all around the world. His trip took him through Europe, through five thousand miles of Russia and into Siberia. It seems an impossible task for anyone to have tried just for the enjoyment of the journey, but James Holman was exhilarated by traveling, and even his being totally blind could not keep him off his self-appointed odyssey. That a blind man could have accomplished so much travel made him a celebrated figure in his time, but he had been forgotten by the time of his death in 1857, and has had no biographer until Jason Roberts, who writes fiction and nonfiction, came across his story. He has brought back Holman in _A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler_ (HarperCollins), an inspiring story of an almost unbelievably resourceful and irrepressible man who could not be at ease unless he was on the road, and never let his blindness hold him back.

Holman was medically separated from the Royal Navy for rheumatism, which remitted but then he mysteriously lost his vision, completely and forever. At the time, the blind had little hope for independent living. He took a pension, but chafed at any responsibilities that would have kept him in any certain locale. Holman relied acutely on his hearing to get him along in the world he could not see. He used a regular walking stick, not so much as a cane to sweep the path in front of him, but as a device to echolocate; he would make a click with the end of his cane and learn about what was around him.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Stephen Balbach on August 24, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This can be a life changing book, in particular for those who think they have a disability, it is well written and very entertaining.

Giving it 4 stars instead of 5 because of a couple "scholarly" quibbles which for most won't matter. 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.
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