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The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget's Thesaurus

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  • Posted February 12, 2010

    "Words are the physicians of a mind diseased."

    "Words are the physicians of a mind diseased." AESCHYLUS. Prometheus Bound
    Joshua Kendall's 'The Man Who Made Lists' is a refreshing break from the plethora of spiteful political exposés that have demanded our attention this election year. With a tutored eye, he introduces the reader to the life and times of Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869), physician, theologian, lexicographer and compiler of Roget's Thesaurus.
    Born in London while England fought America at the front door, and Spain at the back, Roget started what was to be for him a sad and humorless life. Nevertheless, Kendall's light touch sails us through this ocean of misery and madness in a way that might otherwise try the reader's endurance.
    Disturbed people surrounded young Peter; indeed, he exhibited obsessive- compulsive behavior himself long before such a condition was recognized. However, he handled it by exercising his fertile brain to the exclusion of normal life.
    Long before his thesaurus was published, Roget .
    . Qualified as a physician at Edinburgh University.
    . Developed a new laboratory test for arsenic poisoning.
    . Published a paper on the slide rule, inventing the log- log scale.
    . Discovered that the retina typically sees a series of still images as a continuous picture, with subsequent implications for film making in the future.
    . Achieved success as an academic physiologist.
    . Published a 250,000-word treatise on animal and vegetable physiology to international acclaim.
    His day job was as a dedicated physician at industrial Manchester where he endured great hardship while tending to the poor. Not too many doctors do that these days - not in SW Florida anyway.
    He was also involved in what could have been a life threatening adventure. One of Roget's many activities was to accompany a family of young children on a grand tour of Europe to give them what would have been an intensive education. When they were in Switzerland, Napoleon demanded the arrest of all adult Englishmen. Swift and persistent action on his part allowed him to return to England with his charges; safe and sound. There is even a suggestion that his escape plan was suspended long enough for Madam de Stael to seduce him.
    Madam de Stael was not the only 'name' to punctuate his life. Roget was no stranger to Jeremy Bentham and Humphrey Davy. He had more than a nodding acquaintance with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. Erasmus Darwin, (Charles's grandfather), and Benjamin Franklin's son William were notable conversationalists. He was involved in a book club that Isaac D'Israeli, (Benjamin Disraeli's father), was invited to join.
    It was towards the end of his life that the Thesaurus was published. It had 28 printings before he died, and continued by his family. Roget died while on holiday in West Malvern, Worcestershire aged 90, and lies in the cemetery of St James's Church. Maybe the steep hills there had something to do with it.
    Roget's life was filled with sadness, but Kendall avoids melancholy and moves the biography on at fiction speed. The result is a well-written biography of a very interesting intellectual who prospered despite adversity. A pleasure to read - more than once.

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  • Posted July 18, 2009

    Interesting book, suffers from lack of pacing

    By placing the most tragic and revealing incident in Roget's life at the beginning of the book, the author creates a powerful hook which he is then, unfortunately, unable to top for the rest of the work. The book as a whole suffers for the author's tendency to jump ahead in time to interesting events, and then back up to explain how we got there. This device eliminates the question in the reader's mind of "how will this turn out?" or "what happens next?", making most of the reading like slogging through a marsh to a destination you already know. Perhaps it is difficult to sustain empathy for a subject such as Roget - who worked so hard to keep his own emotions under control that he actually scolded others for expressing theirs - but by the time the book was over, I felt that I had learned quite a lot about the man, but was also certain I would never have wanted to meet him.

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  • Posted May 4, 2009

    An informative account of the thesaurus-maker's life and times and of the history of word books.

    As might be expected of the man who undertook such a compulsive task as the making of the standard thesaurus, Roget was a rather eccentric individual. The author chronicles his strange life and that of his family in a workmanlike way. The writing is clear if not inspired. He tends to be repetitive. But the story of Roget himself--he was accomplished in more than just making word lists--and of the history of word books is of sufficient interest to have held this reader's attention.

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  • Posted May 2, 2009

    Slower going as a book, but interesting figure

    Peter Roget was a brilliant 19th century figure who overcame emotional illnesses [inherited depression and anxiety] to complete a successful medical and research career, culminating in his masterpiece, "Roget's Thesaurus." Had no idea he invented the slide rule, among other accomplishments, all the while supporting his mother and sister who also suffered from depression.

    The book itself is a little dry, but as a college Linguistics major, I found the story to be compelling enough to keep me interested. Goes quickly enough, particularly if the subject intrigues the reader at all.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 25, 2008

    Dull subject, dull writing, dull book

    How do you write an interesting book about a socially isolated man with absolutely no feelings for others, no friends? Roget had a compulsion to categorize everything in the world, down to a final list of 1000. The Thesaurus is a monument of great achievement, invaluable to all writers. But the biography could have been a short essay. The writing has no humor,no wit and is written in newspaper style. The book is almost painfully dull. But, so was Dr. Roget. I fell for the deceptive blurbs in this week's New Yorker and bought it at once. Glenn Stoutt, MD

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 26, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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