It may be time to retire Caspar David Friedrich's The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog from further use on a book cover. Lovely as it is, this painting has done enough time as shorthand for a sentiment along the lines of "Man is so small, the world about him so vast, gaze on it with me, won't you?" Then again, sometimes exactly that sentiment is called for. Such is the case with Jason Roberts' A Sense of the World (HarperCollins; 382 pages), an enthralling biography of a man you've never heard of named James Holman.
Holman was a prodigiously restless world traveler in the early 19th century, a time before Ambien and JetBlue when the world was a dangerous, miserably uncomfortable place to travel. He circled the earth, traversed Siberia, roamed the Australian outback and the Brazilian rain forest, climbed Vesuvius during an eruption, hunted elephants in Ceylon and slave ships in the Atlantic and wrote best-selling books about it all. He did all this despite a grave handicap: he was blind.
A promising naval officer, Holman lost his sight at age 25 after a mysterious illness. That was, to say the least, a calamity. Braille had not been invented yet. The blind were institutionalized and infantilized, expected to lead celibate lives mooching or begging or doing menial work. None of which appealed to our hero. Seeking a cure (not only for his blindness but also for agonizing rheumatism), he set off alone for southern France.
As he traveled, he made a strange discovery: he felt better. Soon he realized he wouldn't, maybe couldn't, stop traveling. He never got his sight back, but when he was on the move he felt different--healthy, dignified, whole. "I see things better with my feet," he said, with characteristic good humor.
Holman had a talent for brushing up against interesting people and things--literally. He occasionally got into trouble for groping a piece of statuary or other priceless artifact, and his biographer takes full advantage of any occasion for a rich, satisfying digression. Holman met François Huber, a pioneering blind entomologist who, like Holman, had managed to carve out a career despite his disability. He studied bees using a special hinged hive that opened and shut like a book. Holman sailed with William Owen, the brilliant, illegitimate, eccentric naval captain who surveyed the coast of Africa.
A Sense of the World is inspiring--but in the real way, the way most "inspirational" books aren't. Holman wasn't a Fear Factor thrill seeker; he was a deeply Romantic figure, a man ransacking the globe for peace of mind even as he fled the demons of disappointment and bitterness nipping at his heels. A celebrity in his time, Holman subsided after his death into the darkness in which he lived. He, and readers everywhere, owes Roberts thanks for leading him back into the light.