Monday, January 11, 2010

The Man Who Made Lists

I'm still reading and enjoying Moby-Dick, but I'm only halfway through my voyage. I'll take a short break and put up my notes on a nonfiction book I read last fall. They were scrawled on a single sheet of notebook paper that's bound to get lost if I don't do something.


The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness and the Creation of Roget's Thesaurus - Joshua Kendall (2008).

I borrowed this book from a coworker. It's a vivid portrait of Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869). Known primarily for his Thesaurus, he was also a physician, invented the log-log slide rule, and published The Bridgewater Treatise, a 2-volume survey of physiology/natural theology. Poe and Emerson both loved Bridgewater and Tennyson consulted it often while writing In Memoriam.

As a doctor, Roget spent some time in Manchester where he worked for John Ferrier, the supervisor at the Manchester Infirmary. (Ferrier is also famous for coining the word "bibliomania".) Manchester was a nasty, dirty place -- pollution from the factories and outbreaks of cholera made it an undesirable city in which to live. Ferrier and Roget worked tirelessly to battle filth and disease and educate the public about safe and sanitary practices.

To unwind and get his mind off of his job, Roget worked on a word list that he had started back in childhood. According to this biography, making lists had always been his coping mechanism. Roget was shy and a bit on the gloomy side. His father died when he was a small boy and his mother was overbearing and paranoid. Young Roget was also attracted to science, so classifying and making lists seemed to go hand-in-hand and produced a calming effect on him.

The Man Who Made Lists is an engaging read. Kendall has a clear and straightforward style. Some of the scientific information could have been deadly reading -- obviously Kendall had to wade through an ocean of 18th century science writing, but he makes it interesting and appealing to modern readers. He also connects Roget to the other famous figures of his day. Some are still well-known now, others not so much. Kendall briefly but meticulously sketches in the necessary biographical detail.

.Although Roget was involved in a plethora of activities during his long life -- he wrote a thesaurus in 1805, but didn't publish it until 1852 when he was past 70 -- Kendall carefully traces how everything he did eventually led up to his most famous work. One of the ways he accomplishes this is with his chapter headings -- each one is an entry from the Thesaurus.

Kendall's writing is lively and accessible, but sometimes he gets a little too breezy. Certain phrases, which are straight from our time create a jarring shift in tone that is an variance with the subject and his time: "his smarts" and "crank out the syllabus" are a couple of examples.

.Also, Kendall often attributes certain thoughts to Roget without attribution. The index is good, but there are no notes or bibliography. Both should have been provided. In addition, he belabors the point about Roget's mother -- Okay, yes, we get it -- she WAS overbearing, she DID have a few mental problems! Finally, that subtitle is a little too overly dramatic. I'm almost sure that Kendall had nothing to do with that -- it reeks of committee meeting.

Overall, I recommend The Man Who Made Lists. I'd like to see a book in a similar vein about Noah Webster, and I nominate Joshua Kendall for the job.

9 comments:

Fyrefly said...

I just mooched a book called The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester. It seems kind of strange that there are two books on such similar topics with such similar names.

Bybee said...

Fyrefly,
aha! I knew I'd heard that subtitle somewhere before...

Jeane said...

I read the Professor and the Madman- it was quite interesting. I bet I'd like this one too, although I find it kind of funny that their subtitles are so similiar. Was it the same publishing house, I wonder?

Kathleen said...

How fascinating! I've never heard of the story behind Roget's Thesaurus. It's sad that I used one all these years and never gav it a second thought as to how it came into existence! And I call myself intellectually curious!

jenclair said...

I've heard of The Professor and the Madman and thought it sounded interesting. The Man Who Made Lists interests me as well. Your comment about the lack of notes and bibliography is a drawback because I, too, pay attention to these and use them for further reading on the subject.

Maybe I'll be able to get copies of both this year and be able to compare!

Jenny said...

Whoa, the title is indeed extreeeemely similar to The Professor and the Madman (which is excellent, by the way) - and it sounds interesting although I know the lack of notes & bibliography is going to drive me crazy.

christa said...

This sounds like an interesting book, I will add it to my non-fiction TBR :) I love the title of the book! I make lists... just don't follow through...

Eva said...

I read The Professor and the Madman in high school, and I immediately though of it while reading your review! lol (Like EVERYONE ELSE who's left comments.)

But nowdays, I'm more picky about my nonfic, so the lack of notes/bibliography might annoy me. Hmm...deicisions, decisions....

joemmama said...

This one sounds very intriguing. You come up with the most interesting reads!