Recently, libertarian anarchist Jeff Berwick mentioned one of his favorite books in his June 20th Dollar Vigilante newsletter blog post Let Go, Live Free. The book, A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler by Jason Roberts, is about the extraordinary life of James Holman, The Blind Traveler (15 October 1786 – 29 July 1857).
Jeff said to read the book…
…if you think you are just too disadvantaged to be able to travel and make a life for yourself somewhere else. Born in 1786, Holman was completely blind and suffering from debilitating pain and limited mobility, he undertook a series of solo journeys that were unprecedented both in their extent of geography and method of “human echolocation”. In 1866, the journalist William Jerdan wrote that “From Marco Polo to Mungo Park, no three of the most famous travelers, grouped together, would exceed the extent and variety of countries traversed by our blind countryman.”
He traversed through most of Europe, across Siberia in Russia, through Australia, China, India, Africa and to Brazil, just to name a few places. Blind. With no money. In debilitating pain with limited mobility. Before the advent of the airplane, automobile, or Internet.
I never thought that I was too disadvantaged to go somewhere unknown and make a life for myself, but I did perhaps think that I was too afraid to do so. That fact combined with Holman’s seemingly remarkable life story captured my interest and I immediately bought a hardcover copy of the book for $0.50 plus $3.99 shipping and handling here on Amazon.com. It arrived to my home in New Hampshire from across the Atlantic in less than a week and I read it soon after. I must say that I am very happy that Jeff recommended the book in his blog post and that I choose to buy a copy. It is now definitely one of my favorite books.
Now that I have read the book I can critique Jeff’s above paragraph slightly. First, James Holman did not literally have “no money.” He did have some money, but very little—certainly not as much as people would expect him (or a sighted man) to need to travel nearly as far and wide as he did. Second, to make it clear, Holman was not born blind, but rather lost his sight over a “short time—weeks, if not days” when he was twenty-five years old (A Sense of the World, p. 56). Having said this, he indeed made his great travels after he became blind and while suffering from his condition of debilitating pain and limited mobility. Jeff did not exaggerate these points.
If any of this sounds remotely intriguing, then allow me to pass on Jeff Berwick’s recommendation to you. A Sense of the World is an astounding book about a truly fascinating man in history. It is an easy read and is highly enjoyable and inspirational. There will never be another James Holman. I would love to write about some of my favorite aspects of his life here, but I do not wish to spoil anything for you. Jason Roberts does a wonderful job. I’d rather you hear about Holman from him.
The cover of my copy of the book gives the following review:
“Brilliantly executed… alive, magisterial, suspenseful. Full of wonder and with a commanding sense of narrative, this is one of the best and most life-affirming biographies I’ve ever read.” — Dave Eggers
I could not agree more.
Lastly, I will mention that I could offer some libertarian anarchist commentary on Holman’s travels. I could talk about how he managed to use his charm to gain special benefits from men with government privileges. I could also talk about how governments often impeded his travels and made his passage across various imaginary borders very difficult, if not impossible. However, such an analysis would miss the point of learning about his extraordinary life. James Holman is the quintessence of a certain kind of freedom. It is this freedom that Jason Roberts brings to life for our benefit in the pages of his book.
I will thus refrain from such a political analysis and will instead end this blog post with a bit of poetry.
Some difficulties meet, full many
I find them not, nor seek for any.
— James Holman, The Blind Traveler