01 July 2010

Book Review: A Sense of the World. How a Blind Man became the World's Greatest Traveler, by Jason Roberts, *****

Synopsis
When Lieutenant James Holman sailed to Russia in 1822, intent on crossing Siberia on his way to circumnavigate a globe still largely uncharted, the authorities of the Tsar arrested him on suspicion of espionage. Their scepticism was understandable: James Holman was completely blind. Holman returned to London and wrote a bestselling book about his abortive trip. But the wanderlust remained: as he put it, "In my case, the deprivation of sight has been succeeded by an increased desire for locomotion." In 1827 he set off again, this time for Africa. He would not return until 1832, having visited India, the Far East and Australia en route, and indulged in seemingly suicidal adventures such as stalking rogue elephants in Ceylon and helping blaze a road through uncharted New South Wales.

For Holman it was the raw intensity of such experiences that kept depression at bay: he travelled in order to regain the sensation of feeling fully alive.

click on each of these maps to see them in full size





Maps courtesy of Jason Roberts. See more info on Jason Roberts' website.

Review
It would be difficult today with all the modern conveniences that technology provides, but it was much much harder to do two hundred years ago. Yet James Holman did it. After blindness interrupted his naval career at age 24, he started a new life as a world traveler and became a well know writer and highly paid of his adventures. In this, I am sort of envious of him, though in the end he ran out of money and readers and died a lonely man, his funds having dwindled and his fame all but vanished.

In my view the main point of the book is that Holman sang an hymn to curiosity for the world which I find admirable for anyone, all the more so for a blind person. Whereas others might have been discouraged and would have given up after disease cut short one career, he had the energy to pick himself up and start again on a completely new path. A path more challenging than the Napoleonic wars he had been fighting at sea.

Perhaps not so amazingly compared to his travels themselves, he kept a diary of parts of them, which he wrote with the help of an ingenious writing device, and the text is available for free at Project Gutenberg.

The book may have some holes in the facts here and there, but that does not distract from the main aim, which is to convey an extraordinary life through a high readable prose that makes it hard to put down.



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