A Few Scattered Thoughts About Lists

Lists can be used for many purposes, some more practical (like a shopping list) and others more literary (like Vladimir Nabokov’s inventory of tourist attractions in Lolita), some more serious (like the articles of the United States Constitution) and others more lighthearted (like Benjamin Franklin’s 228 synonyms for drunkenness). Lists can also be an entertaining format to communicate tastes and preferences, and these are the ones that always intrigue and entertain me. Here are the main reasons why I enjoy making lists of favorites and looking at other people’s lists of favorites. Organized, of course, as a list.

01 – To reexamine and challenge my own preferences.

It’s too easy to categorize a book or a movie based on our first impressions and then leave it there forever. But our relationship with cultural artifacts changes over time, as we learn new things and generate new ideas, and revisiting previously labeled and catalogued works may reshape our perception of them.

For example, perhaps you first read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road when you were a teenager, while living with your parents, and then you rediscovered it as an adult, after you made a long trip by yourself and had a few adventures of your own, and it was almost like a different book. Or perhaps you watched Jack Clayton’s The Innocents when you were younger and thought it was a boring movie, a horror story without horror, and then saw it again many years later and discovered that it’s actually a subtle tale of fear and uncertainty, much better than the cheap scares you get from most contemporary horror movies.

Cultural artifacts may also change themselves in relation to the context that surrounds them. Reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings before watching Peter Jackson’s trilogy of the same name is definitely not the same experience as reading it after you’ve seen the movies. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has always been influential since its publishing in 1949, but the experience of reading it is fundamentally different when you know your government is practicing mass surveillance on its citizens and trying to mislead the media and manipulate public opinion.

Making a list is an opportunity to review my categorizations, reevaluate them, sometimes revisit some favorites to see if they are still favorites or perhaps to replace them with new discoveries.

02 – To reshuffle ideas and reorganize memories.

I have been making lists for many years, and I must confess that once in a while I look at an old list and have no idea why I included or excluded something from it. Yes, any list of my favorite foods would include sushi, and there it is, but where is the paella? I love paella, how could I forget the paella? And was I drunk when I listed Philippe de Broca’s Le Magnifique among my top movies from the seventies? I don’t even remember it that well. Time to shake and reorganize these lists. Perhaps I will watch Le Magnifique again, possibly followed by paella and a good Rioja.

03 – To present ideas in a quick and simple way.

Many of us, perhaps too many, seem to want to know everything but would not take the time to learn anything. Because there are other things to do and we don’t want to miss them. Combine TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) with FOMO (fear of missing out) and you have someone eager to consume information in the smallest portions available. Lists can provide that ideal format, very short and direct, a promise of immediate knowledge.

Or, perhaps to rebel against frenetic consumption, lists can be less direct and more convoluted, like this one. Unless you are only reading the headings and ignoring all the verbiage, in which case this list, to you, is also short and direct. But you would be missing all the fun.

04 – To generate conversations.

You may learn more about a person from their answer to “what are your three favorite movies” or “what are your favorite places in the world for a long weekend” than what you would get from more habitual queries like “where are you originally from” or “what do you do for a living”.

In some cases you don’t even need to see the contents of the list, as the choice of what to list can already be a powerful statement. The person making a list of “the healthiest ways to prepare your tofu” is probably a very different individual than the one telling you about “the most delicious ways to grill pork ribs”.

Great conversations usually happen when the lists are very similar with just one or two exceptions. If you like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and you see them in my list of top crime writers, and also see Jim Thompson there, an author you haven’t read, you may want to learn more about him and perhaps try some of his novels. (Incidentally, Jim Thompson is one of the most interesting hardboiled novelists. But that’s a story for another time.) If you and your friend have both included John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, and Stan Getz in your respective lists of top five jazz saxophonists, it may be interesting to see your friend try to defend Kenny G as his fifth pick. Even if we consider such defense an impossible task, the first four picks show that you already agree on many things in this particular topic, and the conversation should at least be amusing and stimulating. (Defending Kenny G as one of the best jazz sax players is as unwise as defending Jar Jar Binks as one of the best characters in Star Wars. Unless, of course, you embrace the non-canonical theory of Binks as the Sith Lord secretly controlling all events around him. Perhaps that’s the only way to defend Kenny G: call him Darth G.)

05 – To pretend we can bring order to chaos.

A list is in itself an attempt to organize things or ideas. Even unordered lists create a system with two categories, one of things that are in the list and the other of things that are not in the list. Lists help us create an appearance of order.

Establishing a set of internal guidelines can take this a step further and enhance the sense of organization. I like to work with a few self-imposed guidelines when creating my lists. For example, when listing favorite movies from a certain period or in a certain genre, I usually restrict it to only one title per director. Also, since the decisions about what to include and what to exclude are hard enough, sometimes I save myself from the extra distress of having to order the items internally. Instead, I list my selections in chronological or in alphabetical order. Guidelines like these can reinforce the sense of a solid structure with sturdy internal order.

It can be very satisfying to have these lists, categories, rules, selection criteria, with everything ending up neatly organized. But, of course, it’s all pretense. Life, as Shakespeare famously wrote, “is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. Hey, that’s a great quote. You should put it on a list.