What is a List?

A list
is a list
is a list …

In his New York Times essay “The Joy of Lists,” Arthur Krystal explains that as a list “purist,” he is of the belief that “a list should aspire to ‘listhood.'” A “true list,” he goes on to say, “ought to at least look like a list.”[1] Krystal doesn’t specify what that look is, but does he need to? When we picture a list in our minds, most of us probably see a column of words or short phrases. Words or phrases arranged vertically, often accompanied by dots or numbers: this is the iconic list, the look of “listhood.” While what a list looks like may thus go without saying, it begs a question that is more difficult to answer: What is it about a list that causes it to be so closely associated with a specific visual form? Or put more simply, what is a list? The following is a list of imaginative answers to that question drawn from a survey of writers writing about lists. As they suggest, whatever lists are, there is much more to them than words.

  1. A list is a life form.

Or so Krystal would suggest in his choice of the word listhood as something to which a true list should aspire. Like childhood, motherhood, adulthood, sister- or brotherhood, the term listhood implies a condition of being or a stage of life. In his introduction to The Chatto Book of Cabbages and Kings: Lists in Literature, Francis Spufford seems to concur with Krystal on lists’ liveliness when he observes, “Most of their life happens outside of literature,” calling to mind the patterns of certain fish whose lives are divided between fresh- and salt-water stages.[2] Robert E. Belknap goes so far as to classify various species of this life form, noting in his book The List: The Uses and Pleasures of Cataloguing that some “fragile” varieties need protection so that they can “thrive,” while threatening “invading species” of lists need weeding out.[3]

  1. A list is a troublemaker.

Belknap’s “invading species” suggests that lists can also be troublemakers. At the very least, as Krystal observes, “lists can try a reader’s patience.” He depicts the recognizable scene: “There you are happily reading along in a poem or a novel and suddenly a Catalogue, and Inventory, a Phalanx of Facts appears on the page.”[4] Before Krystal, Stephen Barney had identified list “trouble” more bluntly, characterizing the list form as “an intruder, alien from a society’s values,” in particular, we might add, the values of readers like Krystal’s, which include peace, quiet, and the absence of interrupting lists.[5]

  1. A list is enchanting.

Perhaps a list’s seductiveness is one way it disturbs a reader’s peace. Recalling his first “compelling” encounter with the lists in James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Belknap captures the allure of a list as a matter of both its content and its “look”; he writes, “Their precision and detail, their arrangement, drew me.”[6]  It would seem that in drawing him in, the lists even returned his gaze, and did so even more powerfully than the faces in the book’s photographs: he writes, “of all the extraordinary things in that book, including the sober faces captured by Walker Evans’s photographs, it was the lists that fixed me.”[7] Later Belknap describes the fixating effect of “media-generated” lists in similar but more menacing terms, maintaining that they possess “a certain power” that has the capacity to “inform, distract, tempt, or swallow us, leaving no trace.”[8] A collection of essays on lists edited by Lucie Dolezalová names Belknap’s “a certain power” in its title, The Charm of a List. Understanding “charm” as a force that fascinates and attracts, tempts and distracts, this title raises the specter of the book’s contributors having succumbed to the influence of that very spell. Indeed, many of the essays in the volume are rife with lists that describe the lists under study. One essay in particular includes several pages of bulleted lists describing inventory lists.[9] Do lists also charm writers into formatting their lists in such a way as to make them as recognizable as possible as lists, thereby fixating more and more readers?

  1. Or: a list is an object.

Somewhat less fancifully, the list is often spoken of as an object, most notably a container or a surface. On the one hand, a statement like “I’ll put that on my to-do list” associates a list with a surface, in particular, one for writing; on the other, the title of Jack Goody’s influential essay “What’s in a list?” accords with our everyday sense of lists having “contents” and thus being containers. As containers, a list is often limited to a certain size by a number in its “title”: the seven deadly sins, the seven dwarfs, and the seven wonders of the world are all lists that will allow no further additions. As the saying goes, though, “the list could go on,” and in this way the dimensions of a list are potentially infinite. As William Gas observes, “There is no limit, presumably, to the length of lists … for the idea of a list implies the possibility of a complete enumeration.”[10] Umberto Eco evokes this “idea of a list” in the title of his book, The Infinity of Lists.

As this inaugural list of lists aims to demonstrate, lists might evoke specific images, but the nature and parameters of those images have yet to be fixed. Despite their quotidian and ubiquitous uses, their form sparks the imagination as a form of and for possibilities. At this blog we aim to create a forum for exploring lists in all their possibilities and in this way to bring attention to the list as a multi-faceted form worthy of study in its own right. We propose to call the academic study of lists “listology.”

Blog posts will appear every two weeks on Sundays, each featuring a particular list, or kind of list, or a list-related topic. We invite guest posts by fellow list lovers, and we will aim to include as many different lists from as many centuries and cultures as possible. If you would like to write a post for the Listology blog, feel free to be in touch with us at listology@gmail.com.

[1] Arthur Krystal, “The Joy of Lists,” New York Times 3 Dec. 2010.

[2] Francis Spufford, “Introduction,” The Chatto Book of Cabbages and Kings: Lists in Literature, ed. Francis Spufford (London: Chatto and Windus, 1989), pp. 1-26, at p. 2.

[3] Krystal, “The Joys of Lists.”

[4] Robert Belknap, The List: The Uses and Pleasures of Cataloguing (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), xiv, x.

[5] Stephen Barney, “Chaucer’s Lists,” in The Wisdom of Poetry: Essays in Early English Literature in honor of Morton W. Bloomfield, ed. Larry D. Benson and Siegfried Wenzel (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications: 1982), 189-223.

[6] Belknap, The List, 90 (emphasis added).

[7] Belknap, The List, x.

[8] Belknap, The List, ix

[9] Gerhard Jaritz, “The Stories Inventories Tell,” in The Charm of a List: From the Sumerians to Computerized Data Processing, ed. Lucie Dolezalová (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2009), 160-66.

[10] Umberto Eco, The Infinity of Lists; William Gass, “And,” Voicelust (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1985), 101-25.

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