I love making lists and I don’t seem to be alone in this obsession. My favourite type of list, of course, is the reading list, which is why I have put together a number of them for this blog.
You may have seen them and wondered what on earth they are here for. The rather unsophisticated explanation is that I enjoyed making them and once they were there I thought I might as well publish them. They are lists of books on various topics: the gothic, the 18th century, the middle ages, reading, writing, fairy tales and dogs. These all reflect topics and preoccupations I have explored at some point and indeed am continuing to explore.
Clearly, I am not alone in my obsession with lists. Firstly, there is the ubiquitous bucket list of things one must do in a lifetime, ranging from the inane (fry and egg) to the outlandish (travel to the South Pole). Secondly, there is the huge number of publications (now including my blog) providing lists of things. I will enumerate some these in list form:
- Umberto Eco has actually written a book on lists through the ages: The Infinity of Lists. Here is an interview he gave about it.
- Books that provide lists of writing and journaling prompts.
- Books that list books to read.
- Books that give you places to travel to, for example Lonely Planet’s 1000 Ultimate Sights.
- Music playlists, especially on Spotify.
- Listicles, mostly to be found on news websites, often seen as the ultimate example of lazy journalism.
The word enumeration reminds me that epic poems usually contain, yes you guessed it, lists. Here is one from the start of the Iliad.
“And now, O Muses, dwellers in the mansions of Olympus, tell me- for you are goddesses and are in all places so that you see all things, while we know nothing but by report- who were the chiefs and princes of the Danaans? As for the common soldiers, they were so that I could not name every single one of them though I had ten tongues, and though my voice failed not and my heart were of bronze within me, unless you, O Olympian Muses, daughters of aegis-bearing Jove, were to recount them to me. Nevertheless, I will tell the captains of the ships and all the fleet together.
Peneleos, Leitus, Arcesilaus, Prothoenor, and Clonius were captains of the Boeotians. These were they that dwelt in Hyria and rocky Aulis, and who held Schoenus, Scolus, and the highlands of Eteonus, with Thespeia, Graia, and the fair city of Mycalessus. They also held Harma, Eilesium, and Erythrae; and they had Eleon, Hyle, and Peteon; Ocalea and the strong fortress of Medeon; Copae, Eutresis, and Thisbe the haunt of doves; Coronea, and the pastures of Haliartus; Plataea and Glisas; the fortress of Thebes the less; holy Onchestus with its famous grove of Neptune; Arne rich in vineyards; Midea, sacred Nisa, and Anthedon upon the sea. From these there came fifty ships, and in each there were a hundred and twenty young men of the Boeotians.” And so on.
(Homer: Iliad, Book 2, MIT Internet Classics Archive)
How about all those lists of people from the Bible?
“And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bare Enoch: and he builded a city, and called the name of the city, after the name of his son, Enoch. And unto Enoch was born Irad: and Irad begat Mehujael: and Mehujael begat Methusael: and Methusael begat Lamech. And Lamech took unto him two wives: the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah. And Adah bare Jabal: he was the father of such as dwell in tents, and of such as have cattle. And his brother’s name was Jubal: he was the father of all such as handle the harp and organ. And Zillah, she also bare Tubalcain, an instructer of every artificer in brass and iron: and the sister of Tubalcain was Naamah.“
All of these ancient lists seem to prove that the pre-occupation with listing things is hardly new to humanity. As Umberto Eco puts it, “the list is the origin of culture”.
Nothing beats the internet when it comes to making lists. Sometimes, when I am feeling down, I go to List Challenges and tick off all the books I have read, movies I have seen and places I have visited. Anyone can create a list on this site and other users can then tick off items they have completed. It is, admittedly a colossal waste of time, but one gets a small surge of happiness with each of the little “ping” sounds made when an item is marked. Ah yes, I have read the Iliad and visited Thailand.
Goodreads and Library Thing allow you to easily create a database of all the books you have read. Goodreads also offers (reasonably useful) crowdsourced books around certain topics. All grist to the mill to your list obsessed reader. The saddest list, however, is the to do list which never seems to get any shorter.
Lists can be useful. They can help us remember, they can motivate us, they can entertain us. They help us to make sense of and navigate the world around us. They are reassuring because they impose order. They can also be counter-productive. Who has not written a to do list, then set it aside with a sense of accomplishment and then never completed the actual tasks? The hero of the unproductive to do list is probably Homer Simpson, whose lists are a running joke in the show.
No doubt I will continue to have list-based posts on this blog. I have started the draft of a post on ten of my favourite detective mystery books series. Maybe I should write an essay on why we love lists. I will start work on this by putting together a list of things to read for my research. Stay tuned.