A Journalist's Archive

The Man Who Made Lists
Joshua Kendall
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

“(916) GRATITUDE, thankfulness, feeling of obligation. Acknowledgement, recognition, thanksgiving, giving thanks, benediction.”

 “The Man Who Made Lists” was saddled with genes that could cause the host to stray beyond the boundaries of what society calls “mentally sound.” His predisposition towards insanity was further taxed by an overbearing judgmental mother, who was battling her own mental demons. Grief or personal loss was known to trigger nervous breakdowns ranging in severity from mild to catastrophic for relatives on the maternal branch of his family tree. His grandmother spent most of her adult years in a vegetative state. The man’s method for coping with his genetic heritage is now called obsessive/compulsive behavior.

No medication existed to treat the disorder during Peter Mark Roget’s lifetime. If it did, would he have written “Roget’s Thesaurus?”

Joshua Kendall’s detailed biography of Roget in “The Man Who Made Lists” illuminates the trials and tribulations of Roget’s unstable beginnings, and also provides a comprehensive look at English society spanning Roget’s 90 years on earth from 1779-1869. Kendall teases readers by divulging bits and pieces of Roget’s complex story in the prologue. He then takes a systematic approach in subsequent chapters, starting with Roget’s childhood.  Kendall’s writing style is smooth flowing, but occasionally I detected a change in voice heavily influenced by the 19th century sources he used to create the biography. I found the lapse actually adds authenticity and color to the story of one of English literature’s greatest unsung heroes.

Kendall begins each chapter with a word from the first edition of “Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases,” published in 1852. Note the number next to the word “Gratitude” at the top of the review. If there was one thing Roget needed in his life it was order. His book would contain 1000 concepts, no more or less. When he discovered to his dismay 1002, he numbered “Absence of Intellect 450a, and Indiscrimination 465a.” Thus, restoring order to his universe.

Now read the synonyms for “Gratitude.”  I choose to begin this review with the word because that is what readers and writers owe to Roget – a debt of gratitude. For the last 157 years, the thesaurus has helped transform boring text into enjoyable prose. Kendall also gets kudos for bringing Roget’s story to life. While finding the right synonym now only requires a click of the mouse, the history behind the tool many of us use daily is extremely interesting.

1775:  Jean Roget left his home in Switzerland to take a post in London as the leader of a French Huguenot church in Soho. There he was swept off his feet by Catherine Romilly, who shared his passion for French literature. The two had a happy marriage resulting in the birth of Peter and Annette Roget. Unfortunately, Jean died of tuberculosis in 1783. The event sent Peter’s mother into her first full-blown case of depression. Samuel Romilly, Peter’s maternal uncle, then became the most influential male figure in Roget’s life. He couldn’t have asked for a better benefactor. Romilly, known as “the honestestt man in the House of Commons,” provided the guidance, advice, funds, and social connections Roget would need to succeed in life.

But Roget’s fate did not include a carefree existence. After his father’s death, Catherine kept moving Peter and his sister from one home to another, both in and outside of London. She claimed to be searching for “cleaner air,” or some other flight of fancy that made her believe the next abode would be the perfect place to raise her children.  Kendall writes, “Catherine became excessively dependent on Peter - so much so that she almost began living through him.” In fact, Catherine’s dependence turned the adult-child relationship on its head, leaving Peter to take his mother’s place as the adult in the family.

 However humans are influenced by many factors, especially the time-period in which they are born. Roget was a member of the “Age of Enlightenment.” Reason and order was the rule of the day, scientific advancements were occurring at a phenomenal pace, monarchies were giving way to more democratic forms of government. As a child, Roget worshiped Carl Linnaeus, the scientist who divided the animal kingdom into six classes. So perhaps it’s not surprising he would find solace in classifying words and objects himself. Roget began his first “list of words” at age eight, compiling them in both English and Latin. He also made lists of objects, classifying them as animate or inanimate. The most ominous list he began in early childhood was one labeled “Dates of Deaths.”

Intellectually Roget was well advanced for his age. But his mother’s constant search for the perfect habitat left Roget little time to form friendships, and he became a shy, socially withdrawn individual. So he formed a deep and lasting friendship with words. Perhaps it was the hours spent alone, classifying, quantifying, and reading, that allowed Roget to enter the University of Edinburg when he was only 16 years old. At the time the university was “the center of medical education in the English-speaking world.”  The first two years of study included courses in math, chemistry, mineralogy, botany, and philosophy. Roget was profoundly influenced by a series of lectures given by Dugald Stewart, who said; “The slow progress of human knowledge” is hampered by “the imperfections found in language, both as an instrument of thought and a medium of communication.”

Roget’s took the lesson to heart and began writing a “Collection of English Synonyms Classified and Arranged,” which he finished in 1805. He never published it, but the book became the basis for “Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases,” published in 1852.   

I was surprised to learn the words in the 1852 publication were not alphabetized. Roget remained true to his scientific studies by dividing words into six classifications: abstract relations, space, matter, intellect, volition, and affections. Modern readers might find the classification mind-boggling. Most of Roget’s contemporaries probably did too. Merely as an afterthought, Roget later added an alphabetical list of the words in the appendix of his thesaurus. Bingo! Now a scholarly work of “word classification” became a useful tool for English writers, guaranteeing Roget’s place in history.

Though Roget had his share of hardships, his life certainly wasn’t dull. Kendall’s description of Roget’s capture by Napoleon’s army keeps readers on the edge of their seats.  He rubbed elbows with, and gained the respect of, some of the greatest minds in Europe; presenting lectures at the Royal Society and even overcoming his shyness with the opposite sex by learning how to dance.  Oddly enough one of his obsessions, excessive hand-washing, actually became an asset in his career as a physician. Kendall said readers can get a good idea of how much Roget abhorred “uncleanness,” by noting there are more synonyms for it than any other word in his thesaurus.

Roget experienced a setback in 1838 when mental illness claimed another relative. Samuel Romilly’s wife Ann died, sending Romilly into deep despair. Roget rushed to his uncle’s bed, hoping his medical knowledge could cure Romilly’s depression. But within days Romilly committed suicide. London tabloids blamed Romilly’s death on Roget’s lack of skill as a physician, and he spent years trying to overcome the social consequences of this falsehood.

While Roget’s name will always be coupled with “Thesaurus,” the book was only one of his achievements. Besides being a wordsmith and physician, he was also a mathematician, inventor, and physiologist. He improved the slide rule, allowing mathematicians to solve logarithms. His slide rule remained in use until replaced by the scientific calculator in the 1970’s. Hollywood, rightfully or not, also considers Roget as the father of the motion picture industry, because observations he made concerning the effects of moving objects on the retina eventually lead to the creation of moving pictures.

Kendall’s biography of Roget is a full and colorful story. But I think the most important aspect of “The Man Who Made Lists,” is the nagging question it leaves unanswered. How much creativity, brilliance, or enlightenment is now being suppressed by the medical treatment of conditions earlier generations were willing to accept as personality quirks? The right pill could have eliminated Roget’s disorder. But that would have left the world with a far worse affliction – “boring prose disease.”

Read “The Man Who Made Lists.” See if you don’t find yourself wondering if obsessions should be cured, or left to fester until they achieve brilliance.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
Article Copyright © 2009 Bluestack Consulting, Inc.
All Rights Reserved