In fleshing out the creator of Roget's Thesaurus, writer Joshua Kendall faces something of a dramatic and structural problem: How does one enliven and sustain interest in a man who didn't make his major intellectual contribution until he was 73 years old? The man in question is Peter Mark Roget, a physician by training and a wordsmith by choice. Kendall ties his chronicle together by demonstrating that Roget (1779-1869) was obsessed with classifying and list-making from early childhood onward. These habits of mind proved crucial when he finally decided the time had come to compile and publish his exhaustive list of English synonyms and their opposites (the term"antonym" was yet to be coined).

Roget's life was not particularly exciting - even to him. True, he had a smothering, self-centered mother who eventually went mad, a rich and politically prominent uncle who committed suicide and a harrowing escape from French-held territory in 1803 after Napoleon resumed his war with Britain. But there were long periods during which Roget pursued his career only desultorily, seemingly indifferent to the cause that would ultimately immortalize him.

To compensate for the lack of intrinsic drama, Kendall amasses details of places and personalities that were significant to Roget, frequently drawing on tangential and recently discovered sources. Uneven as his personal life was, it is clear that Roget was unwavering in his fascination with science. He wrote and delivered papers on subjects ranging from anatomy to optics to improving the slide rule. Roget completed the first draft of his "Collection of English Synonyms classified and arranged" in 1805, but he did not publish it - and then in a much expanded form - until 1852.

In his epilogue, the author explains how Roget's Thesaurus has survived as a reference book and valuable literary property (selling almost 40 million copies) despite the advent of online parallels and a withering criticism from author Simon Winchester, who maintained that the work made possible, and thus encouraged, an indiscriminate attitude toward word choices and writing style. Kendall correctly notes that this judgment demands too much from the book and too little from its users.

 

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