Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
We’ve all got one, sitting on our desks or on a shelf. Mine is a battered paperback, with a lurid red cover, propped next to cans of guinea pig treats (for Dora, my piglet). I’m speaking of Roget’s Thesaurus, of course, a tool that is even more helpful than a dictionary when writing something.
But while the book is ubiquitous, we seldom, if ever, think of the man behind it. Joshua Kendall has tried to rectify that with his biography of Peter Roget, a middle-class Englishman with a severe case of Obsession-Compulsive Disorder.
His fixation on words began in childhood, after losing his father at a young age and dealing with his mother’s smothering affection. Mental illness ran in the family and was multi-generational, especially among the women. As a youngster, Roget would become obsessed with subjects, such as astronomy and lose touch with everyday life.His intelligence led him to become a medical doctor, but he was more at home with data than actual patients. In fact, he made several important scientific discoveries, one of which was devising the method used in calculating with a slide rule.
Before his Thesaurus, Roget worked on a number of other books, which also contained lists, but he devoted decades to perfecting the book he is remembered for. It was an immediate hit and a best seller in many countries and languages. Though less so in the U.S. where the editor censored such “vulgar” words as fugue and aria. Was it ignorance or a dislike of classical music?
Roget became a wealthy man, not just from his publications, but also his marriage. The author waited so long to bring up his love life, that began wondering if he’d ever had one. Though Kendall repeats his theory that Roget was a lady’s man, several proposals were rebuffed and he didn’t seem as alluring to women as the author tried to pretend. He finally married at 45, but unfortunately, his wife died much too young, of tuberculosis, the same disease which killed his father.Towards the end of his long life, in the mid-Victorian era, Roget became embroiled in various scandals and not just the one where his childrens governess became his mistress.
Kendall is good at creating a time and place, such as describing the cities where Roget lived or visited, such as polluted Manchester and certain overcrowded London districts. Like the thesaurus, the book itself is somewhat categorized, the author loosely grouping subjects together, instead of strictly following a linear path. This was a bit confusing and made it seem as if there were gaps of years where nothing happened in Roget’s life. However, I did like how each chapter began with a thematic word and its entry from the thesaurus. It was a nice touch.
While the book didn’t read as smoothly as it could have, it did provide a nice overview, not only of Roget, but of the times he lived in. It puts a face and personality behind the book that is so familiar, but whose author is not.
G.P. Putnam’s Sons 2008 297 pp. ISBN 978-0-399-15462-1
Jackie makes lots of lists too, but most of them are for grocery shopping.