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July 12th, 2006 12:00 am MATT BUCKINGHAM | Books

A Sense Of The World

A tour de force biography of a man who led the way in every sense but sight.

In his first book, McSweeney's contributor Jason Roberts has achieved something that more veteran biographers like Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough never bother to attempt: take a near-forgotten historic figure for whom no full-length biography has ever been written and only scant documentary records even exist and write a rich, absorbing account of his life. A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler (HarperCollins, 382 pages, $26.95) tells the story of Lt. James Holman, R.N., F.R.S., K.W., who overcame not only blindness but the limits 19th-century society placed on blind people to circumnavigate the globe—without the aid of a companion.

When a mysterious illness deprives him of his sight while serving as an officer in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, Holman doesn't become a street beggar; he petitions to become a knight. He then uses the modest pension from his knighthood (and defies the rules of his knightly order) to attend medical school and launch on a career of world travel. The Blind Traveler, as he became known, would traverse more than a quarter-million miles in his lifetime, mostly on foot or horseback or by horse-drawn cart. He thoroughly explored every inhabited continent and made contact with more than 200 distinct cultures. Roberts brilliantly re-creates what it must have been like for a blind stranger in strange lands: Holman taps his cane on cobblestones (or frozen tundra) to create "sound maps" of his surroundings; he wraps his head in gauze (no handicap for someone already blind) to fend off stinging insects in Siberia; he judges the beauty of women not by their looks but by their words—and celebrates them in his poetry.

Although Holman published two books about his travels (the first a runaway bestseller, the second a disappointing failure), Roberts must puzzle together the explorer's early and later life from odd scraps left behind in naval records and the papers of Holman's contemporaries. One such memoir reveals a remarkable anecdote in which Holman locates an old acquaintance in a noisy restaurant without the man uttering a word. Roberts introduces his readers to a rich cast of characters the Blind Traveler either met or influenced, including the real-life inspirations for Capts. Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey, and Lord Jim, as well as Charles Darwin and Sir Richard Burton.

Roberts' biography is a tour de force not only for its innovative research into a life that is terra incognita but for the masterful way it conveys a towering spirit who illuminated the world with every sense but his sight.

Jason Roberts appears at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Wednesday, July 12. Free.
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