I don't think a day goes by that I don't consult Roget's Thesaurus. It's different these days — I do it mostly online — but the thrill of finding the perfect word remains intact. There's a new biography out about the man who started it all. Here's a review:
By HENRY C. JACKSON
If the instinctive snobbery could be set aside for a moment, the denizens of the literary world would probably acknowledge Peter Mark Roget’s lasting contribution to writing.
If they are being totally honest, they might even own up to consulting his magnum opus sometime during the last week, if not in the last hour. Or the last minute.
Roget’s life’s work — the English language’s most comprehensive and acclaimed thesaurus — has, for more than a century served as an equal opportunity literary enabler. More than 40 million copies have been sold. The weary college dorm rat trying to make a term paper sparkle and the uppity Great American Novelist in training alike consult its pages, and if they say they don’t? The suspicion here is that it’s a bit of a taradiddle (a fib).
The order and simplicity of Roget’s Thesaurus was a stark contrast — and, Joshua Kendall argues in his new book, a tonic — to the hurly-burly and chaotic life of the man who created it.
The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness and the Creation of Roget’s Thesaurus (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 304 pages, $25.95), Kendall’s solid new biography, offers a theory for Roget that could apply to any number of more conventional literary greats: For him, words were therapy.
With great dexterity, Kendall tells the tale of a lonely and depressed youth who found precious solace in words — not so much their application as their compilation. Roget came from hard-scrabble roots. The product of a single-parent home, he was raised by a mother who was both burdensome and insane.
A remarkable if still off-kilter man emerged from the mess of his youth. He became known for his vocabulary, but that was hardly his only area of mastery. Roget is, ‘‘the eminent nineteenth-century polymath physician, physiology expert, mathematician, inventor, writer, editor and chess whiz,’’ Kendall writes by way of introduction.
As a biography, Kendall’s work is the most complete look at Roget to date, though by Kendall’s own admission this is somewhat misleading. A combination of ostensible scorn and lack of curiosity has meant that no one endeavored to learn much about a man on whose eponymous work they presumably often consult.
True literati have, at least publicly, always had a skeptical relationship with Roget’s obsession. It’s an overly facile tool, they say, one often culled by mediocre wordsmiths. More heady writers believe consulting a thesaurus takes some of the inspiration out of writing.
For them, there’s plenty of evidence in Kendall’s work that Roget was not exactly a man who crackled with creative bursts.
‘‘That’s not how Roget’s mind worked,’’ he writes.
Judiciously, Kendall tries to ward off the pure prose posse from making Roget a villain. Kendall casts Roget’s work as a sort of table-saw of verbiage useful, important but quite dangerous in the hands of ingenues.
‘‘The fault lies not with Roget’s but with the mind-set of some of its users,’’ he writes. ‘‘Roget assumed the reader would play an active role in selecting the right word.’’