Our Longing for Lists
By PHIL PATTON
Published: September 1, 2012
WITH school starting and vacations ending, this is the season of the list—of reading lists and class lists and buy for back to school lists.
But we are also living in the era of the list, maybe even its golden age. The Web click has led to the wholesale repackaging of information into lists, which can be complex and wonderful pieces of information architecture. Our technology has imperceptibly infected us with “list thinking.”
Lists are the simplest way to organize information. They are also a symptom of our short attention spans.
The crudest of online lists are galaxies of buttons, replacing real stories. “Listicles,” you might say. They are just one step beyond magazine cover lines like “37 Ways to Drive Your Man Wild in Bed.” Bucket lists have produced competitive list making online. Like competitive birders, people check off books read or travel destinations visited.
But lists can also tell a story. Even the humble shopping list says something about the shopper — and the Netflix queue, a “smart list” built on experience and suggestion algorithms, says much about the subscriber.
Lists can reveal personal dramas. An exhibit of lists at the Morgan Library and Museum showed a passive-aggressive Picasso omitting his bosom buddy, Georges Braque, from a list of recommended artists.
We’ve come a long way from the primitive best-seller lists and hit parade lists, “crowd sourced,” if you will, from sales. We all have our “to-do” lists, and there is a modern, sophisticated form of the list that is as serious as the “best of...” list is frivolous. That is the checklist.
The surgeon Atul Gawande, in his book “The Checklist Manifesto,” explains the utility of the list in assuring orderly procedures and removing error. For all that society has accomplished in such fields as medicine and aviation, he argues, the know-how is often unmanageable — without a checklist.
A 70-page checklist put together by James Lovell, the commander of Apollo 13, helped him navigate the spacecraft back to Earth after an oxygen tank exploded. Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger safely ditched his Airbus A-320 in the Hudson River after consulting the “engine out” checklist, which advised “Land ASAP” if the engines fail to restart.
At a local fast-food joint, I see checklists for cleanliness, one list for the front of the store and one for restrooms — a set of inspections and cleanups to be done every 30 minutes. The list is mapped on photo views, with numbers of the tasks over the areas in question. A checklist is a kind of story or narrative and has a long history in literature. The heroic list or catalog is a feature of epic poetry, from Homer to Milton. There is the famed catalog of ships and heroes in “The Iliad.”
Homer’s ships are also echoed in a list in Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter”: “‘The time has come,’ the walrus said, ‘to talk of many things: Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax — of cabbages — and kings.’” This is the prototype of the surrealist list.
There are other sorts of lists in literature. Vladimir Nabokov said he spent a long time working out the list (he called it a poem) of Lolita’s classmates in his famous novel; the names reflect the flavor of suburban America in the 1950s and give sly clues to the plot as well. There are hopeful names like Grace Angel and ominous ones like Aubrey McFate.
Borges was also big on lists. Michel Foucault famously referred in his book The Order of Things to a list from Borges’s story, “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins.” The story’s narrator claims to have found the list in “a certain Chinese Encyclopedia,' the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, in which it is written that animals are divided into:
1. those that belong to the Emperor,
2. embalmed ones,
3. those that are trained,
4. suckling pigs,
6. fabulous ones,
7. stray dogs,
8. those included in the present classification,
9. those that tremble as if they were mad,
10. innumerable ones,
11. those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush,
13. those that have just broken a flower vase,
14. those that from a long way off look like flies.
This list parodies the natural historian’s system of classification.
Simple lists of words can quickly take on many shades of meanings. In the 1800s, Peter Roget, an obsessive list maker and polymath, created the classification of synonyms that became “Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases.” The literary critic and language expert H. L. Mencken put together his own list of synonyms for the word “drunk.” They included: snooted, stewed, jugged, jagged and pifflicated.
Literary lists are celebrated at Listsofnote, a Web site run by Shaun Usher that regularly offers examples of lists of cultural value. Examples include a scrawled compilation by the punk rocker Sid Vicious of the 12 virtues of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen (No. 8: “Has fab taste in clothes”); F. Scott Fitzgerald’s advice to his daughter (“Worry about horsemanship”; “Don’t worry about insects in general”); and 47 suggestions from film studio executives for alternative titles to Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” including “The Shadow,” “Shadow and Substance” and “Shadow on the Stairs.”
Menus are lists of choices and they can tell a story too. Here is the cheese list from Terroir, in New York’s East Village:
Coupole, pasteurized goat
Brie, pasteurized cow
Pyrenees Brebis, pasteurized sheep
Timberdoodle, cow, sheep
Challerhocker, raw cow
Harbison Jasper Hill Farm, raw cow
Oro Antico, pasteurized sheep
Roomano, pasteurized cow
Colston Basset Stilton, pasteurized cow
But the menu at the Waffle House chain proves that even the most mundane lists can be packed with information. Like this offering for hashed browns:
“All the Way”
Scattered on the Grill and ...
Smothered — sautéed onions
Covered — melted cheese
Chunked — grilled hickory smoked ham
Diced — grilled tomatoes
Peppered — spicy jalapeño peppers
Capped — grilled button mushrooms
Topped — Bert’s chili
Country — sausage gravy