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The History of The Author’s Ablest Crutch

from Shelf-Awareness

Book Review: The Man Who Made Lists

The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness and the Creation of Roget’s Thesaurus by Joshua Kendall (Putnam, $25.95)

It’s tempting to sprinkle a review of this impressive biography of Peter Mark Roget with an assortment of obscure words, if only to demonstrate one’s acquaintance with his creation–a work that occupies a prominent place on the shelf of every professional writer. Resisting that urge, it’s sufficient to say that Joshua Kendall’s book provides a deeply satisfying glimpse into the life of a fascinating man who made contributions to human knowledge far beyond the volume that bears his name. 

Roget completed the first draft of his Thesaurus in 1805 at age 26 but did not publish the first edition until 1852. By the time he died in 1869, the book had been through 28 editions; over time, it has sold some 40 million copies. From the mere 15,000 words of the original draft, it has ballooned to 375,000 words in one 2002 edition. Much more than a catalogue of synonyms, as it’s commonly viewed, the book instead reflects Roget’s ambitious attempt to classify all knowledge into six broad categories, from “Space” to “Matter” to “Intellect.”

Kendall effectively portrays Roget as a man at the center of much of the fertile medical and scientific life of the 19th century. He was a fellow of the Royal Society, an accomplished medical lecturer and a participant in many experiments with British scientific luminaries. He even wrote a survey of physiology cited by authors as diverse as Emerson and Poe.

RogetIt’s also startling to learn that Roget invented the slide rule scale that until recently enabled generations of math and science students to find powers and the square roots of numbers. He produced a scientific paper on the functioning of the retina that led to the development of early moving picture machines. And the hair-raising tale of his escape from Switzerland in 1803, barely eluding capture by Napoleon’s army, is a thrilling adventure story.

As impressive as was his professional life, Roget was dogged by family tragedy. His father died when the boy was four years old, both his mother and sister experienced bouts of depression and mental illness and an uncle who was a prominent politician committed suicide. For Roget, Kendall concludes, the dogged list-making that produced the Thesaurus allowed him to maintain his sanity in the face of the emotional turmoil around him.

The Man Who Made Lists is an example of popular biography at its best–thorough and yet readable, entertaining and informative. In a word–outstanding.–Harvey Freedenberg

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Posted on March 31, 2008 by Editor

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