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A Sense of the World, by Jason Roberts

What gives birth to a quest? Is it something within an individual—a yearning that offers no peace until it’s satisfied? Or does some stimulus so deeply insinuate itself into one’s imagination that it drives one to learn or experience more? The answer, of course, is both; and each is wonderfully illustrated in A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler. The primary focus is on the former, as Jason Roberts offers an engaging, historically lush biography of world traveler James Holman. Holman was an ordinary young man whose love of adventure and deft maneuvering around obstacles led to a remarkable life. As the subtitle reveals, Holman’s primary obstacle was blindness, which descended upon him in early adulthood. Having already indulged his thirst for adventure by becoming a sailor, Holman continues his travels—mostly solo—after finding life as a retired cripple both physically and psychologically stultifying.

The example of the second quest lies in Roberts’ accidental acquaintance with Holman, which blossomed into a fascination that didn't rest until he'd thoroughly researched the enigmatic Blind Traveler. That didn't lead very far, as Holman apparently left little by way of archival material; and as his fame waned, so did his mentions in others’ works. Roberts’ account is an attempt to give Holman the credit he thinks is due the man, and to fill in the considerable gaps of his remarkable story.

Late in the book, Roberts offers an important observation:

Let us distill the definition of traveler to its purest form. Not a sea captain or surveyor, someone whose passages and movements are a function of career. Not a merchant or diplomat, whose entrance into foreign cultures is purpose-driven. Let us apply it to those who venture forth on their own initiative, to their own itineraries, seeking, like Holman, only to “explore distant regions, to trace the varieties exhibited by mankind.” (p. 318; italics in original)
This distillation likely excludes many, even in today’s motorized and jet-propelled world, from the category. Too often, when we do travel, our minds are fixed on the destination, overlooking the possible delights of the journey itself. True, mile upon mile of mostly bland interstate scenery and McBarreloid meals aren't much cause for excitement—but those aren’t the only choices available to wanderers, particularly if time is no object.

That’s the crux of the problem for modern travelers—time is often an object of paramount importance, or so we like to tell ourselves. In providing what is necessarily just a sharper silhouette of his subject, Roberts nonetheless offers insights for those of us who’d like to be travelers in a fuller sense of the world. I do think that Holman achieved a deeper understanding of the places he visited, in part because of the limitations imposed by his lack of sight; but that does not therefore imply that only individuals with some diminished capability can do so. Too often we blind ourselves in innumerable ways and don’t ever recognize it.

Roberts may or may not have sketched a truer picture of his subject than previous biographies. It is certainly possible that his admiration of James Holman enabled a less critical view, and hence a more admiring portrait than is warranted. As things stand now, it appears we shall never know. And yet, it says something to me that James Holman’s work was cited by Charles Darwin; just as Roberts’ enthusiasm for his subject also speaks to me. In the end, what we get in A Sense of the World is not so much a clearer picture of James Holman, but a sketch more fully realized by a deeper immersion into the Britain—and world—of Holman’s time. Roberts slips into a subtle yet accessible Victorian tone that aids the immersion nicely. Thus, while the story and details A Sense of the World offers its readers will be of value to some, I suspect many will be more touched by its inspiring nature. Roberts captures that well in his closing:

There will never be another James Holman. But there will always be people who must summon the courage to plunge, wholeheartedly, into a world complex beyond our illusions of comprehension. It was to them that Holman addressed his most unguarded words. Contemplating his circuit of the world, he confessed that the most profound moments left him feeling not blind, but mute. (p. 354)

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