Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Book Review: 'A Sense of the World' by Jason Roberts

✰✰✰✰ In a time before airplanes and luxury cruise ships, a solitary, sightless man named James Holman traveled around the world from 1819 - 1832. As a child, Holman dreamed of traveling, but his father had other plans for him. When joining the clergy did not pan out, Holman joined the British Royal Navy. As Holman pursued his naval career, the rigors of sea life caught up with him. He became bedridden due to "exquisite pains" and was deemed “unserviceable.” While Holman recuperated at a spa, his pain subsided. Unfortunately, he was suddenly stricken with complete blindness. With few opportunities available to the blind at the time, Holman joined the Naval Knights of Windsor. Hoping to find a cure for his own blindness, he also became a student of literature and medicine during that time. Eventually, Holman sought to relieve his pain by visiting a more favorable climate...alone.

Due to the success of that journey, he was hooked on solitary travel. With only a natural aptitude for languages, a curiosity for other cultures, and limited funds, Holman became a solitary world traveler. Known simply as the Blind Traveler, Holman survived being held captive in Siberia, fought slave trade in Africa, climbed Mount Vesuvius, and helped chart the Australian outback. He even circumnavigated the globe, an impressive accomplishment for any individual, but especially for one without sight. His adventures were legendary, and he was quite famous during his time only to be forgotten over the years. Fortunately, by picking up this book, the reader can once again travel along with Lt. James Holman as he explores uncharted lands and discovers native cultures.

The Bottom Line: Lt. James Holman was an extraordinary man who was ahead of his time. When repeatedly faced with insurmountable challenges, he continually adapted by reinventing himself. Holman was a man who tested the limits of his disability instead of wallowing in pity. During his lifetime, he was a sailor, knight, student, physician, tourist, and author, but always a traveler. Additionally, Holman easily adopted the latest technology and developed echolocation on his own.

A Sense of the World is an enjoyable and entertaining biography. It is a great example of nonfiction that reads like fiction. In fact, it’s almost as if the author had the uncanny ability to walk in Holman’s shoes. Additionally, Roberts explains the social expectations of the time in a language that is reminiscent of the era. Roberts also includes many short biographies and anecdotes of the fascinating people Holman met during his travels. The paperback edition I read included maps of Holman’s travels and an interview with the author. The only thing missing was an index.

Highly recommended for fans of biographies, travelers, and armchair travelers. This epic tale of one blind man’s quest to “see” the world will transport you to another time and leave you amazed. By simply living his life, Holman became an inspiration to others. Holman, also, remains somewhat of a mystery as his memoir was never published.

Book Club Notes: This inspirational biography of Lt. James Holman provided ample material for an engaging discussion. This book is full of details and is written in a style that prompts discussion. Holman lived during a great era of exploration and invention. Furthermore, he lived his life fully despite his disability. Through reading about Holman’s travels and challenges, the group was able to discuss his examples of life lessons. We were also eager to discuss the mystery of what caused Holman’s blindness and what happened to his unpublished memoir. On a rating scale from 1 – 5, the group gave it an average of 3.25 because some members felt that the first 100 pages were a little too detailed and dry.

Book clubs interested in discussing this book can find discussion questions at LitLovers. Finally, book clubs can supplement the discussion by taking a look at A Voyage Round the World, Volume 1 by James Holman which is available through Project Gutenberg.

Details: A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler by Jason Roberts. Paperback edition published by Harper Perennial in 2007. 400 p. ISBN: 978-0-00-7161065

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