The Man Who Made Lists

The Man Who Made Lists by Joshua Kendall is not only an account of the creation of Roget’s Thesaurus (which occupies only a small section of the book) but also an exploration of the conditions that made such a book possible. Peter Mark Roget was born in London to a family with strong Swiss roots. His uncle, Samuel Romilly, helped shape Roget’s personality but also nearly cost his nephew his career. Thoughout Roget’s youth, Romilly’s fame as a legal reformer helped provide access to new opportunities; yet when Romilly, in despair at his wife’s death, committed suicide while under Roget’s care, the fledgling physician found it all but impossible to attract new patients. He gave up his practice and directed his attention to the academic side of medicine. Kendall’s treatment of Roget opens with this incident, depicting this moment as the turning point in Roget’s life. Thus, out of a family tragedy arose what would become a reference work found wherever English was spoken.

Even before Romilly’s death, however, Roget was already viewing the world as a perfectly ordered machine that simply needed human reason in order to be understood. His teachers, such as his uncle’s close friend Dugald Stewart, encouraged him in this direction, and a great deal of Enlightenment philosophy seemed to reinforce Roget’s outlook and temperament. For instance, the Thesaurus owes much to eighteenth century works such as the Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot, which similarly sought to organize and classify the entire known world under the principles of reason. Moreover, by Roget’s day, earlier scholars such as Carl Linnaeus and Georges Cuvier had already paved the way with a taxonomy of plants and animals that would soon provide support for the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin and lead eventually to Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev’s creation of the periodic table of the elements and the development of historical linguistics. In creating his Thesaurus, therefore, Roget was not seeking merely to provide a handbook of synonyms, but he was following the common intellectual trend of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to classify everything in human experience. Try as Roget might to apply only pure reason to his efforts, however, elements of his final scheme owed much to his personal preference for harmony and symmetry. Thus when Roget’s original plan for the Thesaurus resulted in an untidy 1,002 major concepts, Roget simply reorganized his system until it resulted in a more aesthetically pleasing 1,000 categories. As a way of immersing readers into Roget’s philosophical system, Kendall uses several of these concepts, such as “place of habitation,” “weariness,” and “scholar” as subheadings for his chapters and sections.

Kendall’s image of Roget is that of a man whose obsessions went far beyond words alone. He insisted on cleanliness and order, losing respect for individuals such as the philosopher Jeremy Bentham for failing to meet his standards for hygiene. Most of all, Roget sought to bring order to his world by keeping lists. As a child, he learned Latin by listing names for plants and animals, tabulating verbs related to reading or writing, and not so much reading texts as dissecting them. His lists included the dates when important people in his life died. He was extremely parsimonious about this list, and few of even his closest relatives and friends made the cut. Kendall accounts for Roget’s obsessive creation of lists and tables by seeing these efforts as the author’s way of coping with life in a family in which his father died at an early age and several members demonstrated signs of severe depression. His mother, uncle, and eventually his daughter would be incapacitated by prolonged bouts of despair, and Roget may have viewed his lists as one part of his life that he could control.

Other family tragedies shaped Roget’s personality. His sister had a form of neurosis, and Roget had to...

(The entire section is 1634 words.)


American Libraries 39, no. 7 (August, 2008): 84-85.

Booklist 104, no. 8 (December 15, 2007): 10.

Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 23 (December 1, 2007): 1232-1233.

Library Journal 132, no. 20 (December 15, 2007): 118.

The New York Times Book Review, March 16, 2008, p. 9.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 45 (November 12, 2007): 43-44.

The Wall Street Journal 251, no. 68 (March 22, 2008): W10.

The Wilson Quarterly 32, no. 2 (Spring, 2008): 102-103.