The Man Who Made Lists – Joshua Kendall

27 Apr

Oh, good gravy. This book is finally over. I don’t mean to say that it was poorly written or too long. Okay, I will say that it was too long for me. But the title really grabbed me. And before you start scratching your head about that I better give you the rest of the title. It’s The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget’s Thesaurus. Now that is a title that we can all get behind. Or I can. The Mister saw the title of my book and smiled. He said “that just wouldn’t be something that would appeal to me”. And now that I have finished all 290 pages, I see where he is coming from.

Lengthy, protracted, padded, extensive, windy... but no that bad, actually.

And let’s get another thing out of the way right now… This book is only somewhat related to our crazy Europe trip which supposed to be what I’m blogging about here. See I thought I could somehow connect it since during his long life (Roget lived to be 91) he did serve as a tutor and travel companion. He would visit Napoleon’s France with two young boys and nearly escape imprisonment. That said, this is still a stretch to include. I just figure since I did the work of reading it that I ought to get to tell y’all about it.

Roget is responsible for the thesaurus being what it is today. I’ll get to that in a sec. He also developed a slide rule that was in use (not the same exact one, you now what I mean) until the popularity of pocket calculators in the ’70s. He also came up with a theory on how the eye processes images that some have credited with the invention of moving pictures, and by extension, shares the blame for the making of”Mama Mia!”. He authored a number of acclaimed academic tomes on things such as math and biology, which was called natural philosophy back in the day.

So the guy that helps students everywhere find synonyms for “cybersex” was a scientist. Oh, and a physician, too. He also got so much love from the lecture circuit that he made bank off that, too. He was definitely smart but remember that madness in that winning title? He was surrounded by it. His mother, his uncle, his sister and his daughter would all struggle with their demons. To cope with a world of chaos he started making… lists. Aha! That’s how they make cheese! (Sorry. I have no idea where that came from.). He was a pathological cataloguer of pretty much everything. The fella tracked how much he and his children weighed and could report these numbers years after the fact. He put order into a jumbled and stressful world by finding a way to categorize it.

This affinity for logging detail led to his life as a scientist. He would retire once order started to crumble in this realm, too. Towards the end of a long connection to science he became distraught over the arguments of evolution. With God’s workmanship in question, Roget dropped out of the game, too. That is what actually inspired the publication of one of his largest and oldest lists, the thesaurus. He sought to create order with language so that it would not be a barrier to effective communication.

I have to wonder what our hero would think now that my spelling errors are being autocorrected as I type and that a thesaurus is available on every computer. Would he think that these were improvements or would he see them as a good way for people to avoid learning? I don’t know. I do think it’s sad that many kids growing up today don’t even realize that a thesaurus started in book form and wasn’t always a click away or that making a mix tape takes far more work than a playlist ever could. Especially if you need to include both Stevie Wonder and the Dixie Chicks in the same tape, and, you know, you do.


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