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The Man Who Made Lists Hardcover – March 13, 2008


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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

First published in London in 1852, Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases became popular in America with the 1920s crosswords craze and has sold almost 40 million copies worldwide. According to freelancer Kendall in this Professor and the Madman wannabe, Peter Mark Roget (1779–1869) compiled the thesaurus as a means of staving off the madness that pervaded his family—the classification of words was a coping mechanism for his anxiety. Burdened by his father's early death and a mentally unstable mother and grandmother, young Roget was shy and melancholy. In the wake of the suicide of his uncle and surrogate father, Samuel Romilly, a distinguished MP, Roget's mother slid into paranoia, and a depressed Roget left a flourishing medical practice. But in his 40s, he found happiness: he married a wealthy, intellectually curious woman; developed a lively social circle; and became a first-rate scientist, lecturer and science writer for the masses. His thesaurus, which he tinkered with for nearly half a century, borrowed principles of classification from Roget's hero, the naturalist Carl Linnaeus. Although Roget is a tantalizing subject, Kendall never lights the necessary spark to make the legendary wordsmith come alive. B&w illus. (Mar. 13)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

The title tells all: rather than a discussion of etymology, The Man Who Made Lists examines Dr. Roget and his creation through a psychological lens. Critics couldn’t help but compare the effort to Simon Winchester’s acclaimed The Professor and the Madman (2001), about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Incidentally, in the Atlantic, Winchester criticized Roget’s Thesaurus for fostering “poor writing” in its indiscriminate cataloging. While even those reviewers who agreed with Winchester’s assessment acknowledged the value of Kendall’s subject matter, they diverged on its execution. A few thought the book well-written, a fine balance between historical research and novelistic flourishes. Others found forced dialogue and scenes, slack narrative, and factual errors. Still, The Man Who Made Lists is a fascinating look at a man, an era, and a now-iconic book.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Putnam Adult; First Edition edition (March 13, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0399154620
  • ISBN-13: 978-0399154621
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.4 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,923,637 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

This book kept me engrossed till the finish.
M. Mucalo
For those disappointed that this book did not focus more attention on how the Thesaurus was accumulated, I think you miss the point.
Fred Houpt
In fact, by the time the book gets around to this topic, it is very close to the end.
P. Meltzer

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

37 of 37 people found the following review helpful By Jon Hunt on April 1, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
It could be argued that a generation from now the man whose name is synonymous with synonyms might very well be forgotten, thanks to computer-based websites that offer up what Peter Roget first published in 1852. Joshua Kendall offers a glimpse of a man who was a medical doctor by profession but made his lasting name through his "avocation"... a word not known in Roget's day. It is revealing but incomplete.

Peter Mark Roget was descended from a lineage that seemed to produce more than its fair share of depressed family members. His mother never quite recovered from her husband's early death, his sister, jilted as a young love, suffered bouts of lifelong melancholy and his famous uncle, so set off by grief from his wife's death that he took his own, all contributed to Roget's own depression. Given the fact that Roget lived to be ninety is no small order, but "order" is the very word by which he lived. Shutting out the very emotions that might have given color to his life, Roget turned to listmaking. It is here we are forever grateful to him.

Kendall's biography is rather dry and often flat but he does introduce a humorous chapter (and a profoundly historical one given the Napoleonic times) whereby a young Roget is hired to take the two teenage sons of a wealthy Englishman to Europe for a year or more and give them an education through travel. That the highly unemotional and humorless Dr. Roget could help the boys absorb anything about Paris "through the senses" would have been suspect, and consequently, as the author points out, the sons wrote back to their parents regarding the numbers of statues and pictures that were contained in The Louvre and the number of tower steps and organ pipes at Notre Dame... hardly worth a trip to the City of Light.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Fred Houpt on June 17, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Having finished the book I will share my impressions, but first a few words about some of the criticisms in reviews here at Amazon. For those who said it was poorly written without examples, these comments read as hollow. The well researched book deserves better than this. For those disappointed that this book did not focus more attention on how the Thesaurus was accumulated, I think you miss the point. It was almost a life long obsession that eventually made itself manifest once he was well past his middle age. Kendall's book is a biography, which covers a life time and he does so with great depth. For those bored, well then biographies perhaps are not your cup of tea?

My impression is that Kendall did thorough and substantial research and that he knew not only his subject but the times in which he lived. While Roget, of Swiss background, lived a very unusually long life, it was always full of activity and conflict, hefty challenges that involved those closest to him (his direct and extended family)and endless quests for knowledge. A good portion of his obsession for creating lists was to bring order to his often tumultuous life. While some people develope mental or emotional odd or deviant behavior as a result of badly coping with great stress, Roget found that focussing his powerful intellect towards expositions in science and synonyms, allowed him to vent and direct his anxieties towards non-destructive paths, all of which brought him great respect and fame.

What is really quite extraordinary was the depth of emotional hardship that he had to deal with from a young age. We can also clearly see that on some level (hard to really give it a name) that his family had a large cloud of darkness always close at hand.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Grey Wolffe VINE VOICE on November 13, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Entry Word:
disappoint
Function:
verb
Text: to fall short in satisfying the expectation or hope of<they were disappointed by the outcome of the big game
Synonyms: cheat, dissatisfy, fail, let down

I thought it best to use Roget's own words to express how I felt about this book. It's like a McBio. There is so much left out or unexplained and it isn't till you read the acknowledgments at the end of the book do you find out that the author didn't mean the book to be a scholarly work.
Well what did he mean? He also then admits that "where primary source material was lacking, I offer my best approximation of specific details".
In other words he made them up.

OK the biggest failing of the book is that it is non-sequential which I think is a poor tribute to a man who spent his life trying to bring order and classification to everything in life. Kendall has a habit of digressing to another period for two or three paragraphs and then going back to where he was; so that you go from the 1820s to the 1840s and back
again. Well he gave it a good try and I bet he really tried his best (well I can't prove it but that's the impression I get) but it wasn't good enough.

Zeb Kantrowitz
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Alvin Steingold on April 7, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Brevity is the soul of wit. The subject matter is incredibly interesting and the book is well researched. Unfortunately the book is poorly written, so much so that I am going to have to work rather hard to finish it.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Tim Challies TOP 1000 REVIEWER on August 28, 2009
Format: Paperback
I picked up this book rather on a whim as I was scouring my local bookstore. It is a biography of Peter Mark Roget, best known for creating his famous thesaurus. It traces the life of a man who was a very odd but still compelling character. As his biographer says, "Though he had a host of female admirers, was one of the first to test the effects of laughing gas, developed the slide rule, and narrowly escaped jail in Napoleon's France, he is best known for making lists." And make lists he did with an almost obsessive passion. Though Kendall occasionally steps beyond what he actually could know from the historical record into the realm of conjecture, he still crafts an interesting biography of a strangely fascinating man.
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