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The Man Who Made Lists by Joshua Kendall

Chauncey Mabe
South Florida Sun-Sentinel (MCT)

Mad about lists: Sloppy bio fails to define Thesaurus's Roget.

The Man Who Made Lists

Publisher: Putnam
Subtitle: Love, Death, Madness and the Creation of Roget's Thesaurus
Author: Joshua Kendall
Price: $25.95
Length: 304
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9780399154621
US publication date: 2008-03

Few reference works are more valuable to the professional or student writer than Roget's Thesaurus. Far more than a mere synonym dictionary, though that's what most people probably use it for, the thesaurus, arranged not alphabetically but by "ideas," presents no less than a carefully designed way to understand the world and the words we use to depict it. Many times I have gone searching for a synonym in Roget's only to discover my original word did not mean quite what I thought it did.

Peter Mark Roget, the 19th-century British physician, scientist and nonfiction writer, would doubtless be gratified. As presented in Joshua Kendall's thoroughly unsatisfactory "biography," Roget was a man who staved off the madness that ran in his family by a compulsive making of lists. But he did so in a scientific way, influenced by the system of zoological classification developed by one of his heroes, the 18th-century naturalist Carl Linnaeus.

"As Roget envisioned it, the Thesaurus would be a reverse dictionary," Kendall writes. "In his introduction, he explained how it worked: `The idea being given, to find the word, or words by which that idea may be most fitly and aptly expressed." Roget, who believed "the careful use of language depended on understanding not only the meanings of individual words but also the relations between them," hoped that by helping common people use language better, "they might be able to right much of what was wrong with the world."

Born in 1778, Roget's childhood was difficult. His father died when Roget was a boy, sending his mother into mental and emotional instability that made her an inconstant yet clinging parent who descended into outright madness in old age. Roget became an inward child. His sister, who never married, was, at best neurotic, and his daughter suffered similar maladies of mind and spirit.

Roget benefited from the attentions of well-placed family and friends who recognized his gifts. Most important was his uncle, the great British politician Samuel Romilly, who shocked the nation when he committed suicide by cutting his throat, despondent over the death of his wife.

Connections, along with a severe work ethic and natural abilities, enabled Roget to rise to scientific celebrity. He knew most of the great men of his day, serving as secretary of the Royal Society of Medicine. Considered an expert on physiology, he gave important and lucrative lectures, made a discovery about optics that led directly, decades later, to the development of motion pictures, and authored a much-admired popular science book, The Bridgewater Treatise: Animal and Vegetable Considered with Reference to Natural Theology, that, ironically influenced Charles Darwin.

Roget completed and published the Thesaurus, his most lasting achievement, in 1852, after he retired from medicine and science. It made him rich, and even more famous than before, receiving accolades in England, America, France and Germany.

Kendall, a freelance magazine writer with credits in Business Week and The Boston Globe, does a serviceable job of presenting the arc of Roget's life, relationships and achievements. But in many ways, this book has more in common with a novelization than a biography.

Although Kendall apparently conducted years of research, reading journals and letters and so forth, The Man Who Made Lists is a loose affair. The absence of notes and bibliography undermines its authority again and again, as when Kendall reports emotional states, extended conversations, and details of scenes, all of which are, lacking documentation, better left to fiction.

In only one of numerous examples, Kendall relates Roget's state as he attended the funeral of the Duke of Wellington, hero of Waterloo. One paragraph begins, "As Roget entered St. Paul's, he was feeling angry," and ends with Roget noticing his cousin Joseph Romilly sitting nearby. Romilly "saw Roget out of the corner of his eye and put his hand to his hat."

It may well be that Kendall reproduces this scene accurately from accounts in letters or diaries by either of the two men, but in the absence of any sourcing whatever, how are we to be sure he's not simply making it all up? How could he know of Roget's anger, or the sequence that led to Romilly touching hand to hat? And doesn't it seem unlikely that a gentleman in 1852 would enter a cathedral -- for a funeral, no less -- without taking the hat off? Perhaps so, but Kendall's method of research and writing inspires no confidence.


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