Sunday, March 2, 2014

My Quirks are My Gift to the World

Aaaaand, we are snowbound again,  at least so far as church is concerned.  The bishop also postponed Fast Sunday.  What a wise move.  Who wants to starve without meetings to distract you?  Who wants to be housebound with famished children and  a grouchy spouse? 

Then again, I can't imagine his wife being grouchy.  

But me?  I don't take hunger well.  And as soon as I read the word "postpone" in my Facebook feed, I rushed downstairs and celebrated my reprieve with a tuna sandwich, some Doritos and a couple chocolate chip cookies.   

I must still be in starvation mode, 'cause I'm dreaming of foods.  What I'd like to find before me right now is some:  

This week's book, which I have not quite finished, celebrates quirks.

Are you the happy owner of a Roget's Thesaurus? (No, that is not this week's book.)  Oh, good, me too!

I always imagined it had been created by an army of wordsmiths, toiling away deep in some British library.

But no, there was a real Peter Mark Roget.  As chronicled in Joshua Kendall's The Man Who Made Lists, Roget lived through a rocky, unsettled childhood.  Peter was a mere tot when his father died of tuberculosis.  Peter's mother didn't cope well with widowhood. Or rather, she coped by moving the family two or three times a year and by hovering insufferably over the boy. Case in point:  When Roget went off to medical school, Mama made him promise not to touch the sick people.

Peter coped by making lists.  "As a boy, Roget was compelled to crank out his word lists. Without this outlet, he may well have lapsed into the madness that gripped numerous family members."  His notebook "represented his discovery as a boy of eight what was to be his calling.  He had stumbled upon an all-encompassing intellectual pursuit: classifying the world." 

By adulthood, he suspected that his lists might be useful to the public, helping them communicate their ideas with more precision.  By the time he finally refined his lists into a real book and offered it for sale, the world grabbed it up.  Poets, novelists, scientists, letter-writers and students found, in Roget's Thesaurus, a tool that opened their minds like a flower.

I have felt that mind-opening.   In the classic editions of Roget, all his synonyms fall within 1,000 categories.   If you think you're trying to say something about "stealing" but "rob, purloin, pilfer and filch" don't quite nail the idea, your eye might wander over to the facing page, where it sees stealing's sister idea, "taking."  You realize that--Aha!--you really meant "snatch."

Modern editions of Roget, not to mention online thesauri, rob you of this fine-tuning experience.  They arrange the word concepts dictionary-style and, for all the speed which you can track down mere words, it's just not the same.

Places like the grocery store have already figured this out.  Really, can you imagine wandering down an aisle stocked with paper towels, peanut butter and pepperoni?   Pushing your cart one aisle over and finding the marshmallows, mangoes and magazines?  Isn't there something about seeing all the Mexican food together that spurs ideas?   I like the flour tortillas, but what about trying the spinach this time?  I don't know about the taco sauce.  Maybe some queso dip would hit the spot. 

Kendall's book trudges through some dry chapters.  I had almost concluded that Roget, in spite of his great gift to mankind, might not be worth more than a long newspaper article.  But then this fussy, reclusive man got caught in War.  And Love. 

At the very least, The Man Who Made Lists may make you feel better about your own quirks. 

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