I have lists of all the books I have read since the fifth grade and I save all my ticket stubs from the movies. But I haven’t made lists of words (at least, not yet). When The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget’s Thesaurus came across my desk, I was immediately drawn to the tale. Having always considered the Thesaurus to be a reference text, I’d never really thought about how it came to be or who wrote it or that it could be taken in any way other than referential. Joshua Kendall shows the evolution of Roget’s Thesaurus and that it was created out of a man’s need to keep hold of his sense of self through a life filled with trial and tragedy.
Peter Mark Roget hardly knew a time when some form of hardship failed to touch his life. From losing his father at age two to growing up under the suffocating influence of a self-centered mother with family history of mental instability, Roget used lists and organization to maintain a sense of control in his life.
Kendall’s examination goes beyond just the life of Roget. He also includes a lot of information about Roget’s also famous uncle, Sir Samuel Romilly (in fact, there were moments when it sometimes felt like the book had a dual subject). Though deviating from his main focus, this and his other deviations into the lives of those around Roget help to vary what could easily have been a tedious tale. Kendall mentions that Roget had difficulties connecting and empathizing with those around him. The little glimpses into their personal histories feel like Kendall’s attempt to make up for his subject’s weaknesses (there are a number of anecdotes that show Roget to be more than simply removed but flat out insensitive).
The writing style is straightforward and makes for easy reading though the organization leaves something to be desired. There were many moments where I chuckled over the irony of this book about a man obsessed with organization and classification jumping back and forth in time so much. It isn’t enough to make the reader dizzy or confused, but I think Roget would have had a few things to say (though I do think he would have appreciated Kendall’s use of passages from his Thesaurus at the beginnings of each chapter).
What I love about biographies is the glimpse that you get of another time. It’s different from just reading a history book because of the human context they provide. For me, the most interesting part of the book had nothing to do with the Thesaurus. The difficulties faced by British citizens abroad as Napoleon rose to power and took over after the French Revolution. There’s always such a focus on the French Revolution itself and then it seems like everything jumps to when Napoleon was in power and at war. It was one of the few moments with genuine suspense (and it’s a period of history I might look into further).
Ultimately, the creation of his Thesaurus is understated in the text but it hardly matters. What wins the reader over is that Roget’s creation was a form of therapy. Organizing words and concepts from the world around him into comprehensive lists helped Roget to cope with the depression that crippled so many in his family.