The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, And The Creation Of Roget’s Thesaurus, by Joshua Kendall
As a child I had, and consulted, a paperback version of Roget’s Thesaurus, and found it to be immensely helpful in building the sort of vocabulary I have and the ability to find le mot juste in my speaking and writing. Nor, based on this book, am I the only one who has that particular habit, although the age of the internet has meant that I no longer have a hard copy of the thesaurus but rather use its virtual equivalents. It is somewhat telling that Simon Winchester, noted for his fondness for the Oxford English Dictionary despite the quirkiness and lack of scientific rigor in its ambition to define every word, has such a marked distaste for Roget’s Thesaurus despite its rather similarly cosmic aim to provide equivalences between words to improve the linguistic capacity of its readers, largely on account of the way that the Thesaurus can be abused by inexpert writers. Given that the author seems to have specialized in writing about the relationship between creativity and innovation on the one hand and mental illness on the other, this book seems to be right up his alley, and mine, for that matter.
In this book of almost 300 pages we read comparatively little about the development of the Thesaurus itself. What we do get instead is a great deal of the context of the Thesaurus, and that is a fascinating if rather dark story in its own right. Peter Mark Roget was born of a Swiss father (who died rather early in his life) and a somewhat obsessive mother who long struggled with mental illness, and it is little surprise that the awkward and intelligent but deeply melancholic Roget would struggle to understand the world around him and the people in it. Roget lived a dramatic life, having a wife who died young of cancer, a lengthy and somewhat disreputable relationship with a partner who posed as his daughter’s governess, and quite a lot of his relatives suffered very seriously from mental illness, including an uncle who committed suicide under Roget’s care (for he was a medical doctor among his many pursuits), his sister, as well as his daughter (who appears, understandably enough, to have resented her father taking up with her governess and keeping it on the down low). And it was only late in life, when similar and inferior efforts at word lists were being touted, that Roget’s masterpiece of eccentric categorization even managed to be published at all, to the benefit of generations of creative writers.
The author really spends a lot of time digging deeply into the legacy of mental illness that the Roget family and its related clans (like the Romillys, the family of Roget’s mother), and demonstrates that Roget’s polymath achievements carried with them less than pleasant results. Roget shows himself to be rather anal-retentive, extremely fussy, and to have the very praiseworthy quality of being religious and greatly opposed to evolutionary folly. I did not expect the portrayal of Roget to be so Nathanish, with his long period of singleness, his tendency towards having a great deal of warm friendships with women, and his tendency to divide places into “beautiful” and “not beautiful,” which I found endearingly quirky. This book is evidence, if more evidence is necessary, that creative people are often similar in eccentric ways, from the troubles of their own childhood to the way that they use their mental gifts as a way of overcoming serious difficulties that threaten to bring them down. If this book is not a straightforward scholarly biography, it certainly provides a compelling picture of a very interesting man to whom I am at least very ready to give a great deal of empathetic concern.