Freelance journalist Kendall does his best to jazz up the quiet life of the English polymath who turned finding the right word into a science.
Peter Mark Roget (1779–1869) lost his father when he was four years old, and his mother soon began to display signs of the mental instability that afflicted many of her relatives. Growing up with an anxious, smothering parent, Roget took early refuge in notebooks filled with diagrams, mathematical drawings and word lists. As Kendall too often reminds us, these feats of classification “insulated him from his turbulent emotions.” He studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh and became the protégé of such distinguished elders as Sir Humphry Davy and Jeremy Bentham. Though his first “Collection of English Synonyms classified and arranged” was written in 1805, the pioneering system he devised for organizing words under general, abstract concepts (“Sensation” or “Intellect,” for example) would not be published under the name “thesaurus” until 1852. Meanwhile, Roget settled in London, became a member of the Royal Society, wrote scientific articles and an esteemed treatise on physiology and enjoyed life as an eligible bachelor until marrying an affectionate, considerably younger woman in 1824. Kendall, apparently worried about maintaining reader interest during the long run-up to the publication of the Thesaurus, sprinkles his account with direct dialogue (“ ‘Dr. Roget, I’m so glad to see you,’ gushed the petite poetess”) and set pieces of dubious relevance (the Duke of Wellington’s funeral). Presumably—there are no footnotes—the quotes are drawn from the archive of personal papers dispersed by Roget’s relatives. Together with Kendall’s lame pop-psychologizing (“without this outlet, he may well have lapsed into the madness that gripped numerous family members”), they lend a lightweight tone to the biography of a substantive intellectual figure.
Obviously modeled on Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (1998), right down to the subtitle and the overhyped prose.