three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
34-May-June-2008
user_rating: 
0

A-The Man Who Made ListsPeter Mark Roget (1779–1869), the creator of Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases (1852), classified throughout his life. According to journalist Joshua Kendall, this "categorical imperative" stemmed from a self-protective, psychological urge born of loss. When his father died young, Roget was left with his unstable mother and mad sister; his uncle, a father figure, later committed suicide. Roget, who found solace in compiling lists of words, finished a draft of the thesaurus in 1805, but he put it aside to marry a lovely woman (until she, too, died) and to become a prominent physician, scientist, and mathematician. To ward off depression, he returned to his thesaurus years later. He never intended it as a book of synonyms, but an elaborately constructed set of knowledge.
Putnam. 297 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 0399154620

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Word geeks—who fancy a nuanced discussion of synonyms; whose temperatures rise reading a history of the various editions, additions and excisions; who lock horns in lusty debate over the utility of, or damage wrought by, this ubiquitous semantic aid—must look elsewhere. … It is not etymology that awaits, but psychology." Christine Smallwood

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Kendall’s style is plain and sensible; he gets the job done with sympathy and speed, occasionally entertaining the reader with a novelistic flourish. … [He] convinces a reader of the psychological roots and therapeutic success of the Thesaurus." Thomas Mallon

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Kendall calls Roget’s Thesaurus an ‘immortal book’ and a ‘literary masterpiece.’ Immortal it may be, but is it a masterpiece? … [M]ost readers ignore the categories and hunt for the synonyms." Stephen Miller

Seattle Times 3 of 5 Stars
"[Kendall is] good at covering the reference-book precedents to Roget’s Thesaurus and explaining how Roget improved upon them, but less convincing at scene-setting prose (complete with dialogue that seems largely invented—the book comes with no notes or bibliography)." Michael Upchurch

Washington Post 2.5 of 5 Stars
"[Kendall] ought to build toward the climactic event of Roget’s life, the publication of the Thesaurus, but that arrives almost as an afterthought and is given only a few perfunctory pages. … The Man Who Made Lists is unlikely to be the last word on Peter Mark Roget." Jonathan Yardley

Critical Summary

The title tells all: rather than a discussion of etymology, The Man Who Made Lists examines Dr. Roget and his creation through a psychological lens. Critics couldn’t help but compare the effort to Simon Winchester’s acclaimed The Professor and the Madman (2001), about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Incidentally, in the Atlantic, Winchester criticized Roget’s Thesaurus for fostering "poor writing" in its indiscriminate cataloging. While even those reviewers who agreed with Winchester’s assessment acknowledged the value of Kendall’s subject matter, they diverged on its execution. A few thought the book well-written, a fine balance between historical research and novelistic flourishes. Others found forced dialogue and scenes, slack narrative, and factual errors. Still, The Man Who Made Lists is a fascinating look at a man, an era, and a now-iconic book.