Sense of the World (Roberts)

A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler
Jason Roberts, 2006
432 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780007161263

He was known simply as the Blind Traveler. A solitary, sightless adventurer, James Holman (1786-1857) fought the slave trade in Africa, survived a frozen captivity in Siberia, hunted rogue elephants in Ceylon, helped chart the Australian outback—and, astonishingly, circumnavigated the globe, becoming one of the greatest wonders of the world he so sagaciously explored.

A Sense of the World is a spellbinding and moving rediscovery of one of history's most epic lives—a story to awaken our own senses of awe and wonder. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Education—University of California, Santa Cruz
Awards—Van Zorn Prize (short story)
Currently—lives in northern California, USA

Jason Roberts is an American writer of fiction and nonfiction. He is best known for the bestselling A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler (2006), a biography of James Holman, the blind adventurer of the early 19th century.

He was the editor of The Learn2 Guide (Villard) and has also contributed to McSweeney's, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, the Village Voice, Believer, and the San Francisco Chronicle.

In addition to his work as a journalist and author, Roberts was the founder of the pioneering educational website, honored by Yahoo as "one of the ten most important websites of the 20th Century." He is also an authority on multimedia programming, and has written or co-written several volumes in the Director Demystified reference/instructional series (Peachpit Press).

He is a graduate of University of California, Santa Cruz and member of the San Francisco Writers' Grotto, a workspace co-operative that also includes Po Bronson, Caroline Paul, Tom Barbash, Peter Orner, ZZ Packer, and B. Ruby Rich, among others. (From Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
Roberts's 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 - Washington Post

Through meticulous research…with intrigue and humor, Roberts brings Holman fully to life.
New York Daily News

An admirable work, testament to the determination, resourcefulness, and skill of not only its subject, but also its author.
Boston Globe

A remarkable job of resurrecting Holman from obscurity, painting a portrait of a complex and compelling persona.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Paints a convincing and well-researched picture of Holman’s early life.... Holman’s first trip, to Russia, is particularly well-drawn.
The Economist

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."
Publishers Weekly

In his first book of narrative nonfiction, freelance writer Roberts (McSweeney's) tells the story of James Holman, who enjoyed a brief period of fame in the early 19th century as the "Blind Traveler." After serving in the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars, he was blinded at age 25 by a mysterious illness. What Holman decided to do with his life after losing his sight was amazing and inspiring: he became a world traveler and author, going as far afield as West Africa, Ceylon, and Siberia; his best-selling books were known to such figures as Charles Darwin and Sir Richard Francis Burton. In time, Holman's fame was eclipsed by the efforts of jealous rivals, who mocked the thought of a blind travel writer. By his death, his works were no longer in print, and he had been largely forgotten by a public who had perhaps only ever seen him as a novelty. Holman's accomplishments deserve Roberts's labor of love, a well-written popular history that will appeal to an audience interested in stories of individuals triumphing over physical difficulties. Recommended for public and academic libraries. —Robert J. Andrews, Duluth P.L., MN
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 Roberts's 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
School Library Journal

From newcomer Roberts, the first and very welcome, full-scale biography of a great, early-19th-century world voyager who also happened to be blind. James Holman (1787-1857) was a lieutenant in the Royal Navy when he inexplicably lost his eyesight. He was fortunate to be admitted to England's Naval Knights, a sanctuary at Windsor Castle. With his half-pension from the navy and the small financial benefit of being a knight, he made £84 a year (at a time when a government clerk earned £600). But as Roberts, a smooth, thoughtful writer, so ably chronicles, Holman was not about to let the business of life pass him by. He wanted to travel, even on a shoestring. Though sightless, Holman was a wizard at haptic perception, or touch-based understanding. "Where vision gulps, tactility sips successively over time," observes Roberts. There is no doubt, however, that Holman took great draughts of sensory input, which coalesced into well-honed senses of place. His feet were rheumatic, but they itched. His first journey was a Grand Tour-style circuit of Western Europe, resulting in a well-received book about his adventure. Then it was off to Russia, crossing to Siberia in a cart with a Tartar postilion, shadowed by police, through the "path-swallowing marshlands known as the Baraba Steppe." Next stop was the African island of Fernando Po, where Holman worked to thwart the slave trade. Both of those travels also sold well as narratives. On he fared to Brazil, Zanzibar, New Zealand, Ceylon and the Levant, for three or five or six years, returning with reports of soy sauce, kangaroo-hunting, wall-plastering in the Indian fashion. The extent of his lifetime travels probably amounted to 250,000 miles, writesRoberts, who himself deserves readers' admiration for not only making each step a pleasure to read, but for opening our eyes to so remarkably forgotten an individual. A polished and entertaining account of an astonishing wayfarer.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for A Sense of the World:

1. Start with Holman's blindness, the first remarkable fact about him (which made the second fact, his globetrotting, all the more remarkable). What was his reaction to his loss of sight? What would be yours? What inner strengths must Holman have drawn upon?

2. How did society/people treat Holmes when he first began to travel? Might his experiences be instructive to us today—in terms of how we treat blind people? Have you ever had a personal experience with someone who is blind? How'd it go?

3. Talk about the method Holman used to move about independently—tapping his cane to produce sound and echo. How was he able to decode the sounds to determine his surroundings? Does the fact that blindness often enhances the faculty of hearing explain Holmes's achievements—or is there something else at work here?

4. Why would Holman have refused his brother's offer to accompany him on his travels. What would your decision have been?

5. Would the fact that Holman traveled at the turn of the 19th century, when the world was not so peopled, travel not so rapid, have made his travels as a blind man easier or more difficult than today?

6. At one point, Holman quipped: "while vision gulps, tactility sips." What does he mean by this?

7. Holman's comment above suggests that not seeing can yield a richer sensation than seeing. On the other hand, Edmund Burke—who insisted that "no smells or tastes can produce a grand sensation" like that of sight"—seems to imply that a sightless person is not fully developed. Care to discuss the differences in opinion? And while you're at it: if an evil genie forced you to choose between one or the other, which would it be—blindness or deafness?

8. How did Holman make use of his sociable nature to help himself out of difficult, even dangerous, situations.

9. Which of his adventures do you find most astonishing: his ascent of Vesuvius, his attempt to cross Siberia, his work in Fernando Po hunting slavers...or any of his other exploits?

10. To what do you attribute the scorn leveled at Holman, and the eventual neglect of his books? What prompted Captain Chochrane's villification against him?

11. Does Roberts give us an objective biography? Or is he overly biased in favor of his subject? In other words, has he fallen under his Holman's spell? Does it matter?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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