413: The Man Who Made Lists by Joshua Kendall

by Gerard

413.092: Kendall, Joshua. The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget’s Thesaurus. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2008. 284 pp. ISBN 978-0-399-15462-1.

Dewey Construction:

  • 400: Languages
  • 410: Linguistics
  • 413: Dictionaries of standard forms of language
  • +092: Biography

Today, I have a special treat for you: two posts in one day. I stayed up late last night finishing this one and the next one is short enough that I should be able to knock it this afternoon. The good thing is, now that I’ve promised two reviews, I feel a growing desire to ensure I keep that promise. Here goes…

When you encounter the language section of the Dewey, a mild form of anxiety sets in—you have to read about dictionaries and word usage and (gasp!) grammar. But, language is really about people. Without them, there’s no language and no structure and no word for “the smell just after the rain” (which is petrichor). So, inevitably, reading about language leads to reading about people. Today’s first book is just that.

Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869) was a strange and amazing fellow. His father died when he was young, leaving him under the care of his intensely neurotic and invasive mother. Believing nothing sacrosanct, she would use his private journal for her own thoughts and missives, so the young Roget would never write anything personal in them. He would simply write lists of words that went together. These lists would become the basis for the famous Roget’s Thesaurus.

While a great many people think he just wrote the word book, it turns out that he was an accomplished physician and inventor. He helped in the first experiments with nitrous oxide (he wasn’t at all pleased with its effects) and was involved in the first thaumatropes (a precursor to the kinetoscope, itself a precursor to cinematography and animation). He also invented the log-log slide rule, which aided in the quick figuring of roots and exponents. And if that weren’t enough, he published a popular treatise on animal and vegetable physiology and became a member of the Royal Society.

But all around him was sadness. First, his father died early, and then his uncle and mentor Samuel Romilly committed suicide in his presence. His wife died young, leaving him with just two children (a bit low for the times) And his mother was (for lack of a better word) a complete headcase. While troubling, all these events served to shape Roget and his work. And for that, we should not wish it be any other way. Kendall’s book is both amusing and informing. Because Roget and his contemporaries kept such good journals, we are allowed an almost day-by-day account of his life and work. All in all, an exceptionally well-researched book.