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The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget's Thesaurus Paperback – March 3, 2009
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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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Part of the problem is the book's reader, Stephen Hoye. His reading is pretentious. That put me off by the end of the first sentence and it was a constant annoyance throughout the book. A more down-to-earth reader, like the readers for Stephen Ambrose's and David McCullough's books, would have helped.
Having enjoyed Simon Winchester's two books about the making of the OED, namely, The Meaning of Everything (2003) and The Professor and the Madman (1998), I expected that this book on Peter Mark Roget and the making of the thesaurus would be equally stimulating and entertaining, especially since the author, Joshua Kendall, presumably would have previously read Winchester's two books and would have picked up some literary pointers from them. Regrettably, no such literary inspiration seems to have occurred.
Kendall does a good job of bringing that era to life and placing Roget's life and achievements into its proper context. Like many of his contemporaries, Roget was familiar with a wide range of scientific areas - medicine, optics, botany, zoology and mathematics to name a few of his interests.
The cover blurb says Roget invented the slide rule, but that is an exaggeration. Kendall makes clear in the text that Roget actually invented the log log scale that enabled users to calculate powers and extract roots on the slide rule.
Roget's observations on optics played a role in early animation of movement via such devices as the zoetrope a distant forerunner of modern moving pictures.
Roget's family had a tragic history of mental illness down the generations, and Kendall makes much of this to explain Roget's obsessive list-making and other behavioural traits. Unfortunately, he over-interprets scanty evidence in making psychological claims about Roget such as, "as long as his daily life had a purpose, he could keep feelings of anxiety at bay," and that he was a man who came to rely on words as companions.
Kendall seems to have started out with the view that the man who wrote the Thesaurus must have had certain psychological traits and defects, and he interprets the patchy evidence to support this idea. Kendall may or may not be right, but the Roget described in this book was probably not the real Roget.
A small irritation in the later chapters is Kendall's reconstruction of actual dialogue between Roget and other individuals. It seems silly to use such a narrative device, because it adds nothing to the story and is actually quite jarring to the reader.
But these criticisms do not detract greatly from the factual content of this fascinating and worthwhile book about a multi-talented man.