ERC Starting Grant Project on Lists in Literature and Culture at the University of Freiburg

by Sarah Link and Anne Rueggemeier

“Joseph Stalin, Malenkov, Nasser and Prokofiev
Rockefeller, Campanella, Communist Bloc

Roy Cohn, Juan Peron, Toscanini, Dacron
Dien Bien Phu falls, Rock Around the Clock” …

Some of us might first feel the rhythmic pattern of the words, others try to concentrate on individual names and connect them to events. Whatever your reactions to these words from Billy Joel’s “We didn’t start the fire”, it shows in a nutshell many of the cultural, poetic, cognitive and epistemological characteristics that make it so attractive to study lists. And lists are everywhere: shopping lists, to-do lists, bucket lists, rankings, CVs, 1000 places to see before you die, English seminar reading lists and, of course, the sheer infinity of the list encountered, for example, in the local library catalogue.

Unsurprisingly, lists also feature prominently across a wide variety of literary genres and epochs. The abundance of material alone suggests that lists in their literary and cultural contexts may be a worthwhile topic for academic enquiry.

A group of researchers at the University of Freiburg now aims to investigate the literary and cultural functions and potentialities of lists, and, with the help of an ERC starting grant, Eva von Contzen and her team set up the project LISTLIT – Lists in Literature and Culture at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies.

Among others, the project aims to illuminate the following issues:
– How does the cultural practice of list making manifest itself in literary texts?
– How do lists function in particular historical and generic contexts?
– How are lists as a tool for thinking in everyday life and lists in literature interrelated?
– And how could a Listology contribute to the study of narrative, to its forms and functions?

Few people have asked those questions, and the LISTLIT team is excited about the opportunity to come up with possible answers. Their research interests range from antiquity to the twenty-first century, and from police files and pop songs to contemporary graphic novels.

In Sarah Leavitt’s graphic memoir Tangles: A Story about Alzheimer’s, My Mother, and Me (2012) the first list, as you might have realized, is already contained in the title. The recently diseased narratologist Gérard Genette argued that a book’s title, as part of the paratextual apparatus, has the function to prepare the readers for the reading process that lies ahead of them, to accompany them during the reading process and, eventually, influence and direct the process of reception. Enumerative book titles have a long tradition as Daniel Defoe’s The life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who Lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an uninhabited island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With an Account how he was at last Stangely delivered by Pyrates (1719) demonstrates. Dickens, Balzac and Thackeray have imitated and parodied this practice (cf. Mainberger 2003: 120). In Leavitt’s graphic account of her mother’s dementia, however, the paratactical list in the title is not a parody, but hints at an extremely dense and overwhelming experience. The list is a reduced form that is precise but also pregnant with the experiences, meanings and feelings that are not given. These shine through the obviously short version of something that could be expressed in a much more detailed way. The list of words draws the reader’s attention to the charged relationship of the present and the absent, the things mentioned and the things not mentioned. Seen in this context, the list “Things that (her) Mom liked to carry around” when she wandered around the house likewise draws our attention to the absent meaning in the present objects:

> cat brush
> weed from the garden
> photos of her parents
> greeting cards
> books I made her
> socks
> The Lord of the Ring, Book One: The Fellowship of the Ring
> napkins
> bits of houseplants

At an advanced stage of the illness, when her mother “lost her ability to form sentences … and stopped understanding ideas like sister, daughter, or husband”, the objects still mean something to her. What this ‘something’ consists of, and what ‘means’ signifies in her stage of Alzheimer’s cannot be specified more precisely, but the daughter still traces her mother’s self in the way she connects to the world via objects and notes it down in the form of the list: a precious inventory of things that mean something to her mother and as such makes her present as the person she still is.

A list of words as a trace of something hidden is also one of the typical frames for list-making in detective fiction:

Lamp. Violets. Where is bottle of aspirin? Delicious Death. Making enquiries. Severe affliction bravely borne. Iodine. Pearls. Letty. Berne. Old Age pension.’

Bunch asked: “Does it mean anything? Anything at all? I can’t see any connection.”

Thus reads the list Miss Marple leaves behind in Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced right before she vanishes. The list assembles all the central clues that lead Miss Marple to the right suspect; yet, it leaves other people baffled and confused. They cannot fill the gaps and connect the items on the list in a meaningful way.

Miss Marple’s list appears cryptic because the ordering principle according to which it was made is not immediately apparent. The list assembles objects, persons, places, activities, and what appears to be a line of poetry. All those things are presented as a unit, i.e. in close spatial proximity on a single sheet of paper in Miss Marple’s handwriting, but common structuring principles, such as chronology, cause-effect relationships, or family resemblances do not seem to apply here.

The missing link that can transform all the items on the list into a coherent narrative, in this case, is the guilty party. The objects on the list stand in for actions performed with these objects, and there is only one person in the story who had the opportunity to perform all those actions, who would have spelled “enquiries” with an “e”, and is connected to the people, places, and events mentioned on the list.

Detective fiction frequently teases its readers by presenting them with a set of hints that will, so it seems, inevitably reveal a logical sequence of events and so enable the detective to solve the crime. Those clues, often material, appear as facts, as tokens that point towards an objective truth. It is part of the appeal of detective fiction that this objective knowledge seems potentially accessible to everyone. Detectives show how it is done: they connect the dots and thus unveil a bigger picture, make the world explainable. In the face of evermore complex living environments, the notion that, by finding the right connecting piece, one can bring order to that chaos certainly has its appeal.

Although the LISTLIT group makes no claim to unearthing objective truths, it is one of its goals to connect the dots and draw a bigger picture. This is why the group welcomes the opportunity to connect with other research groups and individual scholars with similar or intersecting research interests. The members of LISTLIT are currently involved with the planning of an international conference, which will take place in July 2019 in Freiburg (Germany). Further information on the conference and the call for papers will soon be published on the conference website. If you are interested in lists, know people who are, or if you have ideas or suggestions for joint projects or events, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Or send an email to:

Secondary Sources

Agatha Christie, A Murder is Announced [1950]. London: Harper Collins, 2016, p. 256.

Daniel Defoe, The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, written by himself  [1719]. Ware/Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 2000.

Genette, Gérard. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Cambridge: CUP, 1997.

Billy Joel, “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, recorded July 1989, Columbia.

Leavitt, Sarah. Tangles. A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother, and Me. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2012, p. 84.

Sabine Mainberger, Die Kunst des Aufzählens. Elemente zu einer Ethik des Enumerativen. Berlin/New York: de Gruyter, 2003, p. 120.

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