My family was low on reference books when I was growing up. I don't think we ever had a dictionary. If I ran across a word I didn't know while I was reading, I either asked someone what it meant or figured it out from the context. We did have three encyclopedias along the way: one was from 1960, one was from 1911 or 1913 and one was dated 1903. I used to use the 1911/13 one and in high school tried to blame that for my astonishingly poor grasp of European geography. I was working off a pre-World War I map, after all. Now, though, the world I learned about is much more useful than knowing how to find Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia.
I didn't see a thesaurus until high school (have I mentioned that I didn't go to particularly good schools?) and was terribly disappointed when I did. The whole concept had always sounded so alluring—a book that would give me lots of new words to use in place of some that I had worn out. But instead of having nice alphabetical lists of words with their synonyms next to them, it had all these weird groups in categories that I didn't consider very useful. I wanted to be able to look up and find a word that meant the same thing as, for example, "malice," not have to dig through headings like "Diffusive Sympathetic Affections" to find what I wanted. There was an index that served my purpose, but I didn't get why it was set up the way it was and never got in the habit of using one (and maybe that's why I have certain words that I just use until they're worn out). Not to mention that I didn't know how to pronounce "Roget" or "Thesaurus."
Joshua Kendall's The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness and the Creation of Roget's Thesaurus sheds some light on the construction of the thesaurus. Peter Mark Roget was born in 1769. His father, a minister, died when Peter was too young to remember him. His mother, Catherine, became possessive and anxious about Peter and Annette, her two small children. She smothered them with a constant intrusiveness and neediness, and further added to the difficulties by constantly moving, often several times a year. Catherine's brother, Samuel Romilly, a lawyer who became solicitor general of England, tried to serve as a father figure for Peter (apparently this is the same Romilly family that a few generations later produced Esmond Romilly, who married Jessica Mitford, whose autobiography I recently wrote about. It is a small world indeed), but it was hard for anyone to counterbalance the constant state of nervousness created by Catherine.
Peter was not social and the constant moving didn't help him in the matter of establishing any kind of connections outside the family. At a very young age, he began to make lists and categorize things, a habit that would stay with him all his life, and indeed, lead him to the creation of the thesaurus. He had a tendency to look at everything through a classifying eye—something was beautiful or it was not, a place was good or was bad. Excerpts from his diaries and letters show that when he went on trips to see new places, he didn't try to describe it or his feelings about it so much as list details. He seemed to think that keeping count of the exact number of items at an event constituted a good description (we walked up 320 steps…there were 650 soldiers present…I counted 18 stones…). Reading about him through today's eyes, it's hard not to think that Roget had Asperger's. Of course trying to diagnose people centuries after the fact based on excerpts of their writing would not be considered good science by anyone, but the evidence here seems better than most (you know, I have a second cousin or something who is one of the top Asperger's experts in the world, but I've never met him; in my family he is perhaps better known for having been married numerous times and supposedly having had one marriage end in the second most expensive divorce case and settlement in Connecticut. Apparently being an Asperger's expert pays well.). The list making may also have been a way to deal with depression, or perhaps it helped Roget stave off the madness that subsumed several other members of his family, including eventually his mother, his sister and daughter.
Roget went to medical school at the University of Edinburgh. He graduated at a young age, too young to be expected to be taken seriously as a doctor ministering to patients, so instead knocked around for a while. A job as a tutor to the two young sons of a wealthy man took him to Paris and Geneva, where he did a fine job instructing the little boys but also turned them into mini-Rogets (their letters home discussed Paris in terms of, "there were six towers…we walked past ten gates…"). The trio went to Geneva to continue their studies and got caught up in Napoleon's push into Europe; as an Englishman, Roget was in danger of being put in prison, but managed to make an escape with the boys, traveling in disguise through back roads and forests. This episode is probably the most exciting—and that's mild excitement at that—of the book, especially because of Kendall's speculation that Roget seemed to have stopped off at Madame de Stael's home for a night of romance before escaping Geneva. He would seem to have been an odd match for de Stael, but was considered a good-looking young man, and that apparently was enough.
Classification was very much in vogue in the 18th and 19th century, with the work of Linnaeus leading numerous amateur scientists off on their own categorizing adventures. People collected and analyzed rocks, plants, birds, and animals. No exploration or voyage went off without someone traveling along to collect specimens to be brought home, described, and categorized. In other words, Roget could hardly have been born into a more appropriate time period. He admired the work of Linnaeus, as well as other classifiers such as Erasmus Darwin (though he was much put off by the appearance of the obese Darwin, as well as any other instance of slovenliness, dirt, or, unsurprisingly, disorder). The idea that you could classify words the same way you could classify flora and fauna was not, in the context of the times, that odd.
When Roget returned to England after his tutoring adventure, he began to work as a doctor, and also wrote many well received treatises on medicine and anatomy. When one job called for him to give lectures to medical students, he brought to his lectures the lists of words he had been keeping, so that if he found himself fumbling for a word, he could find an appropriate choice quickly. Roget got the idea that the same system that helped him could also help other writers and speakers, especially those who don't have a natural facility for language or vocabulary. It's hard to imagine, though, someone writing a speech and coming to a point where he or she thinks, "Hmmm…I need a word to convey modal existence, perhaps a state of being…let me check in the thesaurus." But I suppose there must be because the book sold well and has survived numerous editions, revisions, and additions. However, it seems telling to me that the book experienced its greatest popularity during the 1920s when crosswords were the rage; it is, perhaps, best used when someone is looking for a standalone word to fit a concept or a clue rather than as part of an expression of feeling or being.
Roget did well as a lecturer and became well-regarded as a physician; he eventually stopped seeing patients and concentrated solely on lecturing and writing. Personally, he came out of his shell, became a much in demand bachelor, but finally found a woman to settle down with and turned into a happy family man. Roget had his share of tragedy-- his uncle committed suicide in grief over his wife's death, Roget's wife died young, and his daughter went mad. Through it all, he continued his list-making. While we all certainly should go on after tragedy, there is something of the automaton about Roget and maybe that's partially why I didn't warm up to this book.
The other part of that is just that the whole reason we know Roget, the thesaurus, wasn't even published until he was in his seventies, after he retired from medicine. So this, the great event of his life, his peak, came basically with about 25 pages left in the book. There's just not a lot of drama here (outside of the episode in France), though Kendall certainly tries—he opens the book with the scene of the grief-stricken Samuel Romilly committing suicide with his nephew-doctor, Roget, in attendance trying to save his life. I understand that this should be an attention grabber, and again, while it surely affected Roget deeply, in the end it didn't really have any impact on his creation of the thesaurus, didn't seem to change him that much as a person; I think that Kendall was trying to not only begin with a dramatic set piece, but also make a point about madness in Roget's family. Again, this is understandable, but throughout the rest of the book, Roget just never seems like he's ever teetering on the edge of madness himself and the mental ills of the people around him don't seem to get in his way very much. I'm afraid the madness of the subtitle just doesn't feel like it means much in the story of the thesaurus; neither love, nor death, nor madness really was part of the creation of the thesaurus.
Kendall tries hard enough—the book is very easy to read (I read it in a day and a half, a speed that has become rare for me lately); he writes clearly and well enough, though there was one sentence that made me laugh out loud on the train: "It fell to him to read before that hallowed body Roget's mathematical paper on the slide rule." I get that the slide rule was an important tool for scientists and mathematicians, but taken by itself the drama of the sentence compared to the subject matter feels unintentionally comic. The biggest failing of the book, however, was the astonishing lack of any bibliography and notes. I was in shock when I got to the end of the book—a book about a reference book without any references? I couldn't understand that. There were too many conversations and quotes in the text to not include these. I was very disappointed and don't understand the reason for this. If it was a publisher trying to save a few bucks on pages, it wasn't worth it.
Roget's Thesaurus seems like an antique now, in a world where you can easily find the synonym you need by putting in the word you're trying to replace in an online thesaurus. After having read Kendall's book, the thesaurus means much more to me as a symbol of 18th century thought and the evolution of science than as a useful tool. And there is something of value in learning that, but that's all. I wanted to love this book so much, for reasons that don't make any sense, stupid reasons, illogical reasons, but I can't help thinking of them. I wish I could. But the truth is that I didn't love it, it didn't mean anything to me, and perhaps that is telling, that is the answer to my question, and nothing is solved, my heart is broken again.