As someone who loves making lists, I couldn’t help but be attracted by the title of the following book, The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget’s Thesaurus by Joshua Kendall. Peter Mark Roget, a doctor, scientist and lexicographer, came up with the idea of a book of synonyms in 1805, although the book was only first published in 1852. His aim was to help those struggling with the challenges of composition by providing useful varieties of words. It became one of the most recognisable books in the English language and has sold about forty million copies.
The book is a biography of Peter Roget (his family had Huguenot origins), born in London in 1779, died 1869, who had a difficult childhood with the early death of his father and the attentions of a suffocating mother. His response to the challenge was to make lists – lists of plants, lists of deaths that meant a lot to him, lists of Latin words. He began his Thesaurus while working as a physician, but set to finishing it once he retired. After four years of almost incessant work, it was ready to go out into the world. The book became a muse for those who love words – J.M. Barrie informs his readers in Peter Pan that Captain Hook cannot be all bad because he has Roget’s Thesaurus on his bookshelf, while Syliva Plath, Ted Hughes, Dylan Thomas, and many more have kept it close to aid the creative process. The book was a monumental gift to posterity!
This was a most intriguing book and I learned a lot from it. My own list-making obsession seems very mild in comparison with Roget’s, and I was left in awe of his achievement.