A Sense of the World by Jason Roberts is 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 Battuta.
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 first ran this review many years ago at Ready When You Are, C.B. You can tell that I still didn’t quite know how to write a proper review, but I thought A Sense of the World was a terrific book about a man who should be well known today, but isn’t.
Since starting this new blog, I’ve been migrating the reviews I want to keep, mostly the ones about books I think more people should read, over here to James Reads Books. It’s going to take a while. Even after I deleted the posts that are not worth saving, there were almost five hundred that I’d like to keep. I’ve been at this for a long time, you know.