The Man Who Made Lists // by Joshua Kendall

Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget’s Thesaurus

//published 2008//

I’ve always been passionate about words, and have had a fondness for Roget’s Thesaurus my entire life.  When I came across this biography mentioned in Slightly Foxed, I felt that I must give it a whirl.  While I enjoyed learning more about Roget’s life, the biography itself was mostly just alright.

Part of the problem was that Roget’s life wasn’t amazingly thrilling.  While he did have some adventures along the line, for the most part he was just an average guy who happened to be way, way into writing lists of things.  Kendall’s writing didn’t particularly lend itself towards making the everyday interesting, so there swaths of the book that were rather humdrum.  Kendall also spends what I considered to be a rather inordinate amount of time on the state of Roget’s mental/emotional health…  all well and good, except for the fact that it’s not as though Kendall was a close friend, so he’s basically just sort of making things up based on his own personal interpretation of Roget’s journals and letters:

Though Roget’s obsessions did help him cope with his stressful early life, they came at a cost.  Categorizing rather than experiencing the world has its limits.  Like his mother, Peter was incapable of looking inward.  Immersed in his own analytical observations, he was not particularly attuned to what others were feeling.

Just… if someone was to take an analysis of my personality based only on my journals, they would probably say that I am pretty unemotional as well, as much of my journaling is also lists and/or brief accounts of what is going on.  I don’t have a lot of spare time to sit down and pour out all of my feelings onto paper.  (And maybe, in fairness, I am unemotional?  I don’t have a lot of inner turmoil to sift through!)  Basically, in places Kendall came through as very judgy about Roget’s “lack of emotion,” which I felt was rather unfair over a century after he was alive.  Just because Roget didn’t dash all over the place proclaiming his feelings doesn’t mean that he didn’t have any.

On the other hand, Roget did once write a paper entitled “Description of Moving the Knight over Every Square of a Chess-Board Without Going Twice Over Any One,” so many Kendall was onto something after all…

Kendall was also incredibly dismissive of Roget’s religion/beliefs, basically just shoving them under the title of “Stupid Stuff People Used to Believe Because They Didn’t Know Any Better.”  Any and all of Roget’s claims that he pursued scientific research because of his interest in God and understanding the mechanics of God’s creation were quite belittled, Kendall even going so far as to suggest that if Roget were alive today he wouldn’t be bothered with such nonsense.

When recounting the death of Roget’s wife, Mary, Kendall says:

Roget also looked forward to “a heavenly reunion” with Mary – one of the major comforts that Christianity offered to the grief-stricken at the dawn of the Victorian era.  Spending eternity with departed loved ones was a common fantasy.

Excuse me??  That’s really an astounding amount of officious condescension to stuff into two sentences!  (1) Christians still exist, Kendall.  (2)  They still believe in eternal life.  (3)  Christianity isn’t the only religion that has beliefs about eternal life.  (4)  To call someone’s deeply-held personal beliefs a fantasy is just amazingly offensive.  …And that was basically Kendall’s attitude towards religion throughout.

Still, despite my annoyance at Kendall that surfaced from time to time (and since we’re apparently okay with deriving someone’s entire personality from their writing, I imagine Kendall to be rather a pompous ass), overall I enjoyed learning more about Roget.  I was particularly interested that the Thesaurus was actually one of his final contributions to the world.  He wrote many other scientific papers (mostly, unsurprisingly, involving sorting things into categories), and also expanded the basic slide rule into the tool that was widely used until the advent of the pocket calculator in the 1970’s.

Despite Kendall’s insistence that Roget was an emotionless and basically boring person, that wasn’t the impression that I got from Roget’s writing, inventions, and thoughts.  Instead, he seems to have been a man who held his cards close to his chest and enjoyed observing and understanding the world around him.  As someone passionate about words, lists, and general orderliness myself, I felt a strong connection to the man who wanted to make precise language accessible to the masses.