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


Peter Mark Roget—polymath, eccentric, and synonym aficionado—was a complicated man. He was an eminent scholar who absorbed himself in his work, yet he also possessed an allure that endeared him to his mentors and colleagues—not to mention a host of female admirers. But, most notably, Roget made lists.

From the age of eight, Roget kept these lists with the intention of ordering the chaotic world around him. After his father's death, his mother became overbearing and despondent. ...

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

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Peter Mark Roget—polymath, eccentric, and synonym aficionado—was a complicated man. He was an eminent scholar who absorbed himself in his work, yet he also possessed an allure that endeared him to his mentors and colleagues—not to mention a host of female admirers. But, most notably, Roget made lists.

From the age of eight, Roget kept these lists with the intention of ordering the chaotic world around him. After his father's death, his mother became overbearing and despondent. Soon, his sister also descended into mental illness. Despite these tragedies, Roget lived a colorful life full of unexpected twists and discoveries—including narrowly avoiding jail in Napoleon's France, assisting famed physician Thomas Beddoes by personally testing the effects of laughing gas, and inventing the slide rule.

Evocative and entertaining, The Man Who Made Lists lets readers join Roget on his worldly adventures and emotional journeys. This rich narrative explores the power of words and the everlasting legacy of a rediscovered genius.

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Editorial Reviews

Charles McGrath
Mr. Kendall's account of this unusual man is very readable and shows no signs of excessive reliance on the thesaurus. If his writing has a fault, it's a tendency toward mind reading and novelization…But this is an almost forgivable lapse, because Roget is a hard subject to warm to. He led an extremely interesting life without being very interesting himself.
—The New York Times
Thomas Mallon
If the title of Joshua Kendall's fine new biography of Roget has a clinical Oliver Sacks feel, the material pretty much justifies it…Kendall's style is plain and sensible; he gets the job done with sympathy and speed, occasionally entertaining the reader with a novelistic flourish…
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

First published in London in 1852, Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrasesbecame 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 Madmanwannabe, 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 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

How did a physician produce a masterpiece linguistic work? Journalist Kendall provides a very personal answer, namely, that Dr. Peter Roget originally pursued his thesaurus to benefit his own writing and stay mentally occupied despite numerous tragic deaths in his family. Thus, through making scholarly contributions, Roget also avoided the mental illness that plagued other relatives. Drawing upon letters, diaries, and other family documents, Kendall blends historical research with storytelling to support the theme of personal battles and educational experience. For example, Kendall begins by narrating how Roget discovered the suicide of his famous barrister uncle, Sir Samuel Romilly, citing this as one of many tragedies Roget endured. Kendall also discusses Roget's 15,000-word precursor (1805) to the 1852 thesaurus. The earlier part of Roget's 90 years is emphasized, including narrative and quotations to portray his family life, developing interest in language and science, and early efforts to categorize his learning. Another recent biography by Nick Rennison (Pocket Essentials, 2007) generally illumines Roget's scholarly background instead of the personal theme. Recommended for public and academic libraries.
—Marianne Orme

From the Publisher
"Brisk and vivid" —-Los Angeles Times
The Barnes & Noble Review
Apart from Webster, few people have had more impact on English syntax than Peter Roget. At this very moment, tattered copies of Roget's International Thesaurus are sitting on the desks of thousands of writers, but how many know the story of the man behind the words? In his biography of Roget, Joshua Kendall shows how the indispensible reference book -- which first rolled off British presses in 1852 -- sprang from the mind of an obsessive-compulsive. Modern psychoanalysts would have a field day with Roget's upbringing by a domineering mother and his family history of insanity and suicide. Kendall's biography opens with a dramatic, and very bloody, scene: Roget's uncle commits suicide by slitting his throat, then dies in the arms of Roget, a successful doctor at the time. The account of Roget's life that follows never quite achieves that level of intensity -- though Kendall tries to hold our interest with scenes where he appears to have invented dialogue (or patched it haphazardly from diverse extant sources), with artificial, stilted results. Some of the difficulty might lie with Roget himself, who led a repressed, controlled life. In addition to synonyms and antonyms, his other lists charted his personal life through "Dates of Deaths" and "List of Principal Events." The lifelong annotations provided an emotional haven for the shy, awkward man. "He became a daydreamer who easily got lost in the contents of his own mind," Kendall writes. Creating the thesaurus was "both a moral calling and a welcome distraction from his turbulent inner world." More than a wordsmith, Roget also invented a user-friendly slide rule, had breakthrough discoveries in the science of optics (which Kendall links to the invention of motion pictures), and participated in early experiments with laughing gas. However, his legacy remains the thesaurus, and that impact continues right up to this moment, when someone, somewhere is searching for just the right word. --David Abrams
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780425225899
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 3/3/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 1,437,713
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Joshua Kendall is an award-winning freelance journalist who currently writes for such publications as Business Week and the Boston Globe.

Stephen Hoye has won more than a dozen AudioFile Earphones Awards and two prestigious APA Audie Awards, including one for Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert T. Kiyosaki. He has recorded many other notable titles, such as Every Second Counts by Lance Armstrong and The Google Story by David A. Vise and Mark Malseed.

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Table of Contents

Preface     1
Prologue: Stained by the Blood of a National Hero     9
Formations (1779-1808)
The Boy Without a Home     21
The Brilliant Student     53
The Idle and Depressed Young Man     83
Napoleon's Captive     111
Manchester: Both the Thesaurus and a Medical Career Begun     145
Bloomsbury Doctor, Inventor, and Scientist (1809-1848)
The Best-Looking and Most Gentlemanly Bachelor in England     181
Mary     211
Mourning, Scholarly Triumph, and a Secret New Love     233
Wordsmith in Retirement (1849-1869)
Back to the Thesaurus     251
Vibrant Until the Last Breath     267
Epilogue: The Thesaurus Through the Years     281
Acknowledgments     285
Index     290
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • 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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