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The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget’s Thesaurus
Reviewed by MICHAEL D. ROY
Am J Psychiatry 2008;165:1618-1619. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2008.08071119
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by Joshua Kendall. New York, Putnam, 2008, 304 pp., $25.95.

I was drawn to this book because it combines my interest in history with one of the best-known tools of my profession. And when you add to the mix the recurring theme of mental illness among the central characters, you have a book destined (syn. preordained, tailor-made) for inclusion in the Journal’s December issue.

The titular list-making man is Peter Mark Roget, a physician born in London who studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Roget was one of the founders of what would eventually become The Royal Society of Medicine. But of course his name is, well, synonymous with the thesaurus he first published in 1852.

The Man Who Made Lists starts slowly by detailing Roget’s lineage. Since the young Roget bounced around from household to household, that lineage then extends to a confusingly large cast of characters. The narrative gets rolling once Roget leaves his oppressive home life, finishes his schooling, and embarks on his professional career.

His career as a medical practitioner effectively ended before it really began, following a national uproar. The controversy concerned his ministrations to his dying uncle, a prominent Member of Parliament who shot himself. Public opinion was that Roget had failed to grasp his uncle’s emotional well-being leading up to the suicidal act and thus failed to prevent it. This assessment either swayed or reinforced Roget’s opinion of himself—that his expertise was picking up nuances in words and concepts, but not people, and thus his professional prospects were best aligned with that of a researcher.

But his research did not begin on the best of terms either. Roget had a rather unenjoyable (syn. distressing, grievous) experience as a guinea pig for Thomas Beddoes and Humphry Davy in their experiments with nitrous oxide as a potential treatment for consumption. Unlike his peers, who absolutely loved the laughing gas (Davy himself would sometimes inhale as much as 9 quarts four times a day), Roget found the sensation unpleasant. The author ascribes the negative reaction to Roget’s gleaning pleasure not through the senses but through his search for order, which by its nature the gas prevented.

What is surprising about The Man Who Made Lists is how little attention is paid to the thesaurus itself. The thesaurus that we have come to know and associate with Roget was not actually produced until the latter part of Roget’s life. While he prepared an early draft at the age of 26, it wasn’t until he retired at 69 years of age that he decided to complete the work.

The book does provide interesting bits of trivia. For one, Roget is credited with the invention of the modern slide rule (his version allowed the user to directly perform calculations involving roots and exponents). Roget can be credited with another advance, the influence of which has only increased today. While looking out through his window blinds one morning, Roget noticed that the spokes of a cart’s moving wheels appeared to be curved. He at first felt this phenomenon was the result of an impression made on the retina remaining even after the object had passed from view. This morning musing took him to his basement where, after a couple of weeks, he emerged with a paper and mathematical analysis to present to The Royal Society of Medicine. He demonstrated for the first time that the retina sees a series of still images as a continuously moving picture. Thus, had this master of the written word not produced his eponymous work, his legacy still would have been assured as the grandfather of motion pictures.

The author is a kindred spirit of Roget, in that the book’s narrative is laid out for the most part as one long chronological list. But this style proves underwhelming when one arrives at the section detailing Roget’s escape from the French army under Napoleon’s emperorship. As the relationship between England and France once again soured, Roget became nearly inextricably trapped following Napoleon’s edict to imprison all British nationals traveling in France. Roget’s flight for his life is simply recounted through a chronology of events with prose more suitable to a reference text.

As for the madness mentioned in the book’s secondary title, the author mercifully stays away from diagnosis for the most part and does not linger too long in descriptions of abnormal behavior. Suffice it to say that Roget’s family seems particularly afflicted, with mental conditions arising in his grandmother, uncle, mother, sister, and, it is suggested, daughter. However, the book does seem to traffic in a bit of popular psychology by insinuating that Roget’s propensity to make lists represented a coping mechanism that kept him from sharing the fate of many of his relatives. Thus, one should read this not as a paean (syn. encomium, tribute) to overcoming adversity but simply to appreciate the expanse of Roget’s intellect and his dedication to his lasting work.

+Book review accepted for publication August 2008 (doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2008.08071119).

+Reprints are not available; however, Book Forum reviews can be downloaded at http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org.

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