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Originally published Friday, March 21, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Creating Roget's Thesaurus: The story of a man obsessed

Talk about a book being the "work of a lifetime": Peter Mark Roget compiled the first draft of his famous thesaurus in 1805 at the age of 26, published the first edition in 1852 and continued to work on subsequent editions until the year of his death at 90.

Seattle Times book critic

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

by Joshua Kendall

Putnam, 297 pp., $25.95

Talk about a book being the "work of a lifetime":

Peter Mark Roget compiled the first draft of his famous thesaurus in 1805 at the age of 26. He resumed serious work on it in the late 1840s, published the first edition in 1852 and continued to work on subsequent editions until 1869, the year of his death at 90. In all its various editions, "Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases" continues to be a popular reference book for high-schoolers, college students and writers who just know there has to be a better word to slip into that sentence than the dull one they've got in their heads.

So how did this indispensable writing aid come into existence?

Journalist author Joshua Kendall gives us the scoop in "The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget's Thesaurus," drawing on Roget manuscripts long believed to be lost. (The documents, sold to a California collector by a Roget heir in 1992, include an 1805 "List of Principal Events" and an autobiography.)

Peter Mark Roget was born in 1779 to a London church pastor of Swiss background and a jeweler's daughter of French extract. By the time he was 4, his father was dead (of tuberculosis) and his mother had become emotionally unstable.

Kendall's theory, which he hammers home repeatedly, is that the demands and intrusiveness of his mother caused Roget to retreat into a world of his own where his principal occupation was creating lists of words. This impulse to organize and categorize, whatever its inspiration, led to a busy career encompassing far more than his thesaurus.

Roget worked as a physician, published a two-volume work on animal and vegetable physiology, contributed 300,000 words to the Encyclopedia Britannica and was involved with the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, promoting self-education for the working class. He knew many medical luminaries of his day and took part in scientific experiments, most notably Humphry Davy's 1799 trials with nitrous oxide (laughing gas). Kendall makes much of the fact that he disliked the experience, while fellow guinea-pig poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge found it "highly pleasurable."

In medicine, however, Roget had his shortcomings. His reading of people wasn't nearly as nuanced as his reading of words. A turning point came when he wasn't alert enough to stop a beloved uncle from committing suicide after the loss of his wife. The older man died in his arms — and Roget thereafter turned his energies more toward writing and the lecture circuit.

Kendall diligently supplies the scientific, historical and linguistic backdrop to Roget's long life, although he makes the odd geographical error (the town Ilfracombe is not an island "off the north coast of Devon"). He's good at covering the reference-book precedents to "Roget's Thesaurus" and explaining how Roget improved upon them, but less convincing at scene-setting prose (complete with dialogue that seems largely invented — the book comes with no notes or bibliography).

Result: a readable and informative, if not masterful treatment of a worthy and fascinating subject.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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