10 Feb / The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet
At age 8, Roget began writing his first book, simply titled Peter, Mark, Roget. His Book: “instead of writing stories, he wrote lists.” By 1805, those word lists grew to “about one hundred pages, one thousand ideas, and listed more than fifteen thousand words! He kept it on his desk so that he could find just the right word whenever he needed it.” His Thesaurus – which, in Greek, means “treasure house” – was finally published in 1852 to immediate welcome: “People snatched it from the shelves like a new kind of candy.” The book’s popularity (and need) continues; it’s never gone out of print since.
Born in London in 1779, Roget moved to Switzerland with his family in search of a cure for his father’s tuberculosis; Jean Roget died in 1783. The young Roget found books made the best friends, and was “always scribbling,” much to his mother’s chagrin.
Surely, all those words expanded Roget’s brain, because at just 14, he enrolled in medical school at the University of Edinburgh. When he graduated at 19, he was deemed too young to be a doctor, so he moved to Paris as the tutor to two sons of a wealthy man. Two years later, in 1804, he began his life as a physician in Manchester, England; he never stopped making his lists. In London, he gave scientific lectures, made that much more concise and clear because of his book. Having “discovered the power of words,” he was ready to share that vast knowledge: “everyone should have this power – everyone should be able to find the right word whenever they needed it.” And the rest … well …
But did you know that Roget’s original Thesaurus was “classified,” not alphabetized? Inspired by the Swedish scientist Linnaeus who used lists to categorize animal and plant names which “made nature much easier to study,” Roget, too, ordered his lists “according to the ideas which they express.” The back endpapers here show Roget’s initial 1000 words-which-are-ideas, together with an abbreviated Plan of Classification: “Thesaurus of English words and phrases classified and arranged so as to facilitate the expression of ideas and assist in literary composition by Peter Mark Roget,” the original announcement promises. A ‘treasure house’ indeed lies ahead.
Author Jen Bryant and artist co-hort Melissa Sweet have created their own remarkable treasure. Words and illustrations together not only capture an inspiring life, but the story’s execution playfully parallels Roget’s own cataloging, classifying approach: every page is a collage of multi-layered enhancements, additions, variations to get each element just right. Beyond the story, Bryant and Sweet include helpful extra lists of their own, including a “List of Principal Events” not only from Roget’s life, but from around the world to provide important context; their own individual notes on how the book came to be – Bryant’s about taking Roget’s Thesaurus on a road trip by fortuitous mistake, Sweet’s inspiration being a thunderclap; as well as even more lists for further edification. Stupendously brimming with intriguing details on every single page, this is one book that absolutely must be held to behold.