We are a society of listers. Grocery lists, to-do lists, bestsellers lists, the “25 Random Things About Me” meme on Facebook that generated almost 5 million notes in one week. Mainstream magazines feature them, entire websites are devoted to them. Even museums have begun celebrating them: the Smithsonian organized an exhibition two years ago titled, simply, “Lists,” which featured examples of the form by the likes of H.L. Mencken and Picasso. (The latter’s handwritten 1912 list recommended artists for inclusion in the first-ever Armory Show.) The year before that, the Louvre invited Italian writer Umberto Eco to curate an exhibition and event series based on a theme of his choosing. His idea? “The Infinity of Lists.”
Eco also published a lavish and philosophical coffee-table book under the same title. In doing so, he added to the growing field of list literature. This genre boasts in its ranks everything from academic studies to journals that invite the reader to list her way to self-discovery, to 100 Facts about Pandas.
In the U.S., we often laud things by naming months after them. December might then be proclaimed “Lists Month.” At that cold, reflective time, year-end best-of’s inundate us like blizzarding clumps of snow. How do we navigate our way through them? Why do we love them so much?
Dictionary.com includes one “glazomania: a passion for listmaking.” Merriam-Webster doesn’t have a similar entry… yet.
What, exactly, is the list doing to—or for—us?
8 Tricks for Putting Off a Haircut. 12 Globe-Shaped Foods. Top 10 Famous Buses. 40 Culturally Relevant Birds. 13 High-Tech Steampunk USB Flash Drives. The 10 Most Phallic Cars. Top 10 Evil Sports. 5 Insane Celebrity Conspiracy Theories (That Make Sense). Top 10 Weirdest Twin-Crime Stories. Top 10 Strange and Bizarre Dead Bodies. The 10 Hottest Women on the Texas Sex Offenders List. 25 Sexy Chests to Be Thankful For. 9 Surprising Things Men Look for in a Wife. Top 10 Ways to Piss Off Your Wedding Planner. The 4 Worst Times to Be on the Internet. Ways I Am Prematurely Mature. Inconsistencies Between Original Star Wars Trilogy and Prequels. Things I Would Do to Fix the Mets. Indian Film Songs in Kharahara Priya Ragam. Top Excuses Women Give Not to Have Sex. Random Things I’m into Lately. Expensive Things I Need to Buy Someday. Cool Hoodies for Hackers. 100 Things in the World I Love. Lists to Make. Indicators that You Might Need to Focus More…
1. “The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order—not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries.”
—Umberto Eco, interview with Der Spiegel
2. “Lists help us manage the chaos of our lives—to impose order, if only for a moment. Writing a list clears the mind. … Once everything is written down, it’s easier to see which tasks are important and in what order to tackle them. Tasks that seem overwhelming look easier when reduced to mere lines on paper.”
—Sasha Cagen, To-Do List: From Buying Milk to Finding a Soul Mate, What Our Lists Reveal About Us)
3. “To my mind, the difference would be where lists support your quality of life or where they begin to impede your quality of life—where having your list perfected gets in the way of your functioning, or having too many lists. It’s a matter of how you use them. They can give you control in a certain way, but you don’t want them to be the only thing you do to gain control.”
—Dr. Cynthia Green, clinical psychologist and brain health/memory specialist, interview with the author
According to Robert Belknap in his book The List: The Uses and Pleasures of Cataloguing—a study of literary lists, particularly in the work of four American Renaissance authors—lists of sequential signs appeared as early as 3,200 B.C.E. Used as a means of accounting and record keeping, they signified an early form of communication that would evolve into written language. If this is true, then Eco is right: the list is the origin of culture.
In his own book, Eco goes back to ancient history to find examples of literary lists. Homer, in The Iliad, spends 350 verses naming generals and ships in the Greek army. Eco gives us lists contained in the works of Virgil and Dante, the Bible, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and on through the centuries.
The bestseller list, though not quite so old, has deeper roots than we might expect. Harry Thurston Peck compiled and published the first one in February 1895, in The Bookman magazine. Publishers Weekly caught on and inaugurated its own bestseller list in 1912. The ranking-by-sales trend spread to other industries. Billboard began releasing music charts in the 1930s and inaugurated the Hot 100 in 1958.
It’s easy to see how critics might regard these types of lists with indifference bordering on disdain. They’re a useful tool for publishers, distributors, and everyone on that side of an industry, but they’re a real downer for critical authority. Who cares what people are actually reading—we want to tell you what you should be reading! We’ll keep it simple, though; we’ll give you lists, too.
One wonders which critic penned the first top 10, and when. What magazine or newspaper was it for?
“Pauline once called me a ‘list queen’ to my face,” wrote film critic Andrew Sarris in 2001, after the death of his critical rival, Pauline Kael. “…[I]t started me thinking. To my knowledge, Pauline was the only critic never to compile a 10-best list. Her admirers might say that Pauline was above such trivial journalistic diversions. But with a 10-best list, a critic puts his or her tastes on the line, and makes an easier target than one would get, for example, by plowing through Pauline’s stream-of-consciousness prose.”
If the list is the origin of culture, then all culture springs from the compulsion to order. In other words, the to-do list I make as a private individual is an unlikely sibling of the “Top 10 Exhibitions of This Year” list I write as a critic: both reflect me trying to manage the chaos of the world. The grocery list I jot down when I decide to bake brownies is, I would venture, a cousin. (Trying to manage the chaos of the supermarket.) What do we make of this?
Another question: What happens when so many lists vie for supremacy? The Publishers Weekly bestseller list dukes it out with the New York Times bestseller list; the New York Times bestseller list takes on the Time critic’s top picks list; the Time critic’s list faces off against the Entertainment Weekly critic’s list; the Entertainment Weekly critic’s list goes blow-for-blow with an Amazon user’s Listmania list. And then there’s your friend with the blog you like—you know, that one. He’s got his own lists of books you should read, too.
To mark the tenth anniversary of September 11, New York magazine created an encyclopedia of 9/11, an alphabetical ordering of phrases and symbols: “Irony, The End of” preceded “Islam,” which led to “Jumpers.” It was, the editors wrote, a reaction to the overwhelmingness of the event, an attempt “not to shrink from its scale but to embrace it.”
The encyclopedia builds on our usual method of collective remembrance for tragedy: listing the names of people who died. The etched walls of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the reading of the names on Holocaust Remembrance Day—these are attempts at comprehension in lieu of comprehensiveness. Listing as an imposition of form on a mess of history and memories.
The list is omnipresent, and in that sense, it’s a bit like God: existing all around us, capable of assuming many different forms, a way to structure our lives. “Thirteen are the ways that God is good,” goes the song that Jews sing on Passover. The whole song is, in fact, a list—from one through thirteen, each number represents a different tenet of Judaism. “Eight are the days before a bris,” and so on. As a kid, I bellowed those words in a gymnasium filled with hundreds of other Jewish kids dressed awkwardly in their holiday best. We would stand on the laminated benches of the cafeteria folding tables and yell-sing the number corresponding to our grade—“FOUR ARE THE MOTHERS!!” We did that for eight years (we didn’t have a high school; I don’t remember who filled in numbers nine through thirteen in the song), always trying to be louder than the other grades.
Let’s talk about the Internet.
The Internet has been to lists what it was to home videos and amateur porn: the great enabler. In his book Belknap calls it “the apotheosis of the list.” There are simply more lists on the Web than could ever possibly be useful, or enjoyable. Wading through it all—publications that offer them both earnestly and ironically, user-based sites that let you generate and vote on them, various tools and apps for making and managing them—it’s hard not to feel the water rising around your waist.
Even the way we navigate the Internet and get information—by typing a query into a search engine—results in a stack of links. If you use Google, you’ll get anywhere from one to three more lists on the left side of the page, representing ways to edit and refine your search. At the bottom, a two-column list of related searches will appear, and below that a horizontal list of more pages. You are boxed in. The list is inescapable. It is helpful, but it is also confining, organized yet overwhelming. On the Internet, the consummate mechanism for controlling chaos struggles not to become a form of chaos itself.
Contrary to popular belief and much critical ire, the Internet did not beget the listicle (a portmanteau of “list” and “article”). Magazines did. But the Internet offered a garden in which this hybrid journalistic form could grow and spread its seed. Not only that, but because the listicle and its fellow species, the slide show, could be broken up into multiple pages and thus induce people to click through, slide by slide, some people believe this genus provides part of the answer to the nagging question, how can websites make money?
Though I can’t do the precise math, the model looks something like this:
More slides=more pages=more page views=more ads=more money.
Among other places, listicles and slide shows have found a home at the cultural commentary website Flavorwire. Its editors have perfected the art of turning any given topic into a list or slide show. Speaking with me about a recent post that could have run as an essay but was instead broken into a top-10 slide show, managing editor Caroline Stanley said: “I think couching it like that makes it more accessible. Slide shows are obviously generating page views, but I always try to think of myself as the reader first. Breaking 3,000 words into something that’s less intimidating to look at is important; it helps people move through something. … I think there’s nothing, for the Web, worse than looking at this page where it’s a few thousand words to get through.”
Maybe Nicholas Carr is right—maybe we are deep in The Shallows, and the Internet has changed the way we read and think. Shorter attention spans. More pages. Less writing per page. Pictures! LISTS!
I recently met the culture editor at an esteemed magazine that produces a lot of lists. When asked about them, she replied that she finds something incredibly satisfying about the process of clicking through a slide show.
This comment bounced off my brain like a rubber ball. I despise clicking through slide shows. I’m not sure what this says about me. Either I represent the past, when we used to read articles all on one page, or maybe two or three pages, but certainly not ten (unless it was in The New Yorker); or I represent the future, a world in which our attention spans are too short even for slide shows and all we want are clean, simple lists.
I write a lot of lists. These days I probably make a to-do list a day, in addition to the others I keep floating around: story ideas, exhibitions I want to see, people I’ve slept with. But I don’t want to share them with you. Do you want to read them? I doubt it. And I’m not sure I want to see yours.
The Internet has this funny tendency, though: it turns us inside out and makes us into narcissists. On the Internet, we suddenly think most of what we have to say is interesting and worth sharing with the world. Enter listography.com.
The website was founded by Lisa Nola and her partner, Adam Marks, in 2006 (they’ve also published an accompanying series of fill-in-the-blank, diary-like journals). It provides a platform for users to create lists of any kind; people use it for everything from daily to-dos to television episodes (yes, episodes, not shows) watched in a given year, to places they want to travel. Each listographer gets a page, for which he or she chooses a background theme. The lists are laid out on top of it, like pieces of paper arranged neatly on a desktop.
On the site, Nola and Marks bill the project as autobiography through list making: “A listography is a perpetual work in progress, a time capsule, and a map of your life for friends and family.” Fair enough—except that traditionally, personal lists are more like diaries than autobiographies. In fact, they often go in diaries. Do we really want to read the private musings of strangers? I had thought that kind of interest extended only to people we love or dead celebrities.
But I was wrong! Not since the coming of Live Journal and Blogger and MySpace and Facebook do we only care about the quotidian existences of those we know (or think we know). We are equal-opportunity snoopers now.
“When we were building the site, it was a time when social networking was really popular,” Nola told me. “A lot of this became a question of, would people want to share their lists publicly, and would that be the majority? We had to figure out what the overall picture would be.” In the end, as with so much of the Internet, the overall picture was public sharing.
Possible reasons we make and share lists:
1. Maybe it’s about helping ourselves.
Psychologist Dr. Green: “The bulk of information we come across that really matters to our functioning is information that we need to remember for a short time but that we don’t, over the long run, need to commit to memory. Those are the things we keep in a calendar or on a list. Lists and other organizational techniques play a very important role in keeping track of that information and helping us function well. I think we feel better when we’re organized. It feels good to get things done.”
2. Maybe it’s about having an “expert” help us.
Author Sasha Cagen, on her website: “As the world's leading todolistologist, I'm all about breaking down your big dreams into manageable steps and fully celebrating every crossed-off item along the way so you ENJOY the process of doing.”
3. Maybe it’s about helping each other.
Listography's Lisa Nola: “A lot of people enjoy sharing and commenting and being inspired by other people. I made some lists about her [Nola’s mother, who died of cancer last year] that were really private, but I made them public at the time. It was the same way people use any social media website—it was sort of reaching out for comfort. A lot of people reached out, and I was surprised at how comforted I was.”
When you think about it, list making has a kind of creative limit: it’s mostly aggregation, filling empty spots with preexisting items. But choosing those items is often an assertion of power, an act of curation: what doesn’t make the cut is as important as what does.
Today, though, as we increasingly rely on obscure knowledge for novelty, what kind of power does list making give us: the supremacy with which to name globe-shaped foods? A fine eye for spotting the 10 hottest women on the Texas sex offenders list? I worry that we find ourselves knowing a lot, so little of it worth knowing. We risk becoming masters of our own triviality.
Eco, in his interview with Der Spiegel, said, “The list doesn’t destroy culture; it creates it.” This may once have been the case, but it isn’t anymore. For better or for worse, the list now recycles culture. Where once it bred, today it borrows.
Related: 100 Great (Not Best) Songs of 2011 and How Much More Do Books Cost Today?
Jillian Steinhauer writes about art, comics, and other things that strike her fancy for places like the New York Observer, Guernica Daily, Hyperallergic, and The Jewish Daily Forward. Like you and all your friends, she's on Twitter. Image: A page from Madonna's to-do list in 1990, courtesy of Gotta Have It, via Lists of Note.