Literary Daybook, April 29

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published April 29, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On April 29, 1860, Christabel LaMotte disappears from Kernemet.
-- "Possession" (1990)
by A.S. Byatt

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
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Today in Literary History
On this date in 1852, the first edition of Roget's Thesaurus was published. Dr. Peter Roget was a physician by profession but a polymath in practice, publishing learned articles on sewer sanitation, magnetism, bees, geology and more. His inquisitiveness begat quirky discussions of how the knight might be moved to every square on the chess board, and practical inventions such as his "log-log," the first slide rule for calculating the roots and powers of numbers. His biographer tells the story of one morning soon after Roget's marriage when he was gazing out his basement window in Bloomsbury at the local traffic. Taken with the optical effects of passing carriage wheels when viewed through his venetian blind, Roget rushed outside and hired one driver to travel back and forth while Roget sketched and jotted notes. This became "Explanation of an Optical Deception in the Appearance of the Spokes of a Wheel Seen Through Vertical Apertures," a discussion regarded as seminal to the eventual invention of the zoetrope and its successors.

Roget would not have been pleased with this complicity in the creation of the movie camera. Though an academic, he also belonged to the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, and there was a reformer's zeal behind his industry, a Victorian faith in social and self-improvement. He began compiling his Thesaurus as a personal aid for his own writing, and used it as such for decades; when he retired he began to edit and improve his notes, publishing them 12 years later with the hope that the "repertory of which I had myself experienced the advantage might, when amplified, prove useful to others." He even expressed the hope that his labors might help realize "that splendid aspiration of philanthropists," a universal language. That his work on optics would help make movies that universal language, and help undermine the written word, would have distressed him.

From the very first edition, Roget's Thesaurus was also scorned along these lines, as a book that would do learning and language a disservice rather than improve it. As now, the anti-thesaurians scoffed at the idea that Roget's word-patching could fix a leaky sentence or do anything but dumb us down. To date, over 30 million copies of the book have been sold.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

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