I’m trying to think of something good to write about Joshua Kendall’s biography of Peter Mark Roget, but I just can’t, even though the story of Roget’s life includes madness, depression, a death-defying race to get out of Napoleon’s France, and lexicography. Those are things that would make a book interesting to me.
I think my biggest beef with The Man Who Made Lists is that it’s too scant on the creation of Roget’s Thesaurus. What was I supposed to think though, when the book’s sub-heading is “Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget’s Thesaurus?” Sure, Roget made lists of synonyms throughout his life, but he was everything but a lexicographer until he was in his seventies. When Roget finally did get serious with changing the world of thesauri, he did so in a matter of months. The creation of Roget’s Thesaurus was not the odyssey that was the Oxford English Dictionary.
And yet, Roget did have an interesting life. While tutoring two pupils, he took them to France to broaden their horizons (think of your interrailing trip, but imagine your teacher had come along). That’s when Napoleon declared war on England and Roget had to sneak his way into Germany or be locked up in prison. Later in life, Roget made a name for himself in science and medicine – not an easy feat ever – at a time when these fields were exploding. And, in what has got to be my favorite part of the book, homeboy liked to move it move it:
At seven, the dancing began […] Roget remained on the dance floor until eleven, when he took a half-hour break to drink a bowl of soup. But then he was back at it. He danced away the rest of the century and continued until four-thirty in the morning. (107-108)
So even though he was a huge nerd, Peter Mark Roget knew how to party like it was 1999 almost two hundred years before it actually was 1999.
I still would not recommend reading The Man Who Made Lists. If you go in expecting a book about Roget’s life and not a book about Roget’s Thesaurus, then it might be fine. But I felt like I wasted my time. I’m sure there is a good book out there about thesauri and Roget’s hand in setting the gold standard. If not, there should be.
Up next: Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut.
Bonus! The Hocus Pocus review also contains a review of Look at the Birdie by Vonnegut. It’s a twofer!