Monday Musing: ‘Tis the Season for Lists

For many years Abbas and I have spent the occasional evening composing lists of the greatest this, the smartest that, and the most overrated other. As you can imagine, it usually comes at some late moment when we’re tipsy. It’s a silly act of camaraderie which I would do with very, very few others. For me, it’s also a very private affair, which is precisely the opposite role that lists play in society.

I was reminded of it this holiday season, as I am on every other holiday season, because it is the season for collective judgment. Sometime between the beginning of November and the end of January, we are bombarded with lists, usually top 10 lists—and not just the best books, best fiction, best non-fiction, best movies, best albums, best songs, and their complement “worst’s”, but also worst disasters, worst web design mistakes, best and worst toys, and industry or sub-culture specific objects that are, so to speak, too numerous to list.

A list is different in kind and in effect from a simple “person of the year” or other declaration of a superlative. The latter sorts of things usually require some extensive justification of the judgment. If I were to say that Tony Judt’s Postwar was the best book that came out this year, you may reasonably ask why I thought so. And I would give a host of reasons to defend my claim. (In this instance, the claim is hypothetical.) But once I list runners up, I’m forced to answer different questions—why a work of history over fiction? why this prose style over that one?

This comparative quality of lists is the seductive virtue that turns the whole affair into a participatory event. (I was thinking about this when Abbas was soliciting top 10 books of the year from 3Quarks editors.) Relative judgments seem to engage us more than absolute ones. Say Hitler is a monster, you have no quarrel. Say Hitler is a worse monster than Stalin, and then you have a debate. Or if that’s too contentious, try: Franklin Roosevelt was a great wartime leader, against Franklin Roosevelt was a greater wartime leader than Churchill. This is not to say that the judgments of the former kind aren’t debated but that the latter elicits more responses and wider audiences. The Prospect/FP poll of the global public intellectuals did probably far more to create an audience for Oliver Kamm (with his neurotic Chomsky-phobic rant) than it did for Chomsky. Kamm was part of the debate; Chomsky was its object. And for the wider circles, Chomsky’s ordinal rank relative to Daniel Dennett, Richard Posner, or Slavo Zizek, is more contentious affair than whether he is well-known and well-respected public intellectual (at least in many circles).

This fun-silly exercise is not restricted to dilettantes such as yours truly. Sidney Morgenbesser once recounted a dinner with Isaiah Berlin spent classifying philosophers into gods, geniuses, brilliant men, smart guys, and some fourth category, whose title I don't recall. They got into a fight over where to place Leibniz, and wound up creating the category of demigods, which became populated solely by Leibniz. The story made me feel less silly.

Now with the audience that brings, these exercises grow more and more common, so much so that it calls itself listmania. (But some times I wonder whether this need to state our judgments even over matters of taste to wider and wider audiences doesn't make us kin to Judge Judy or the mobs found in Jerry Springer.)

Criticisms or reflective assessments of lists commonly begin with something like: “List say more about those that construct them than they do about . . .” the object, or the real world, or whatever else they’re supposed to tell us about. That of course is trivially true, in the sense that any made object tell us something, often a lot, about the maker. But it is true that lists generally deflect attention away from the criteria for judgment and, quite often, the judge. (“Judge, lest ye be judged,” Karl Kraus once said.) This is so even when the criteria for judgment are made fairly explicit.

Interesting lists offer us not so much new rankings but new dimensions for evaluation. The lists that fill much of the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, lady in waiting to the Empress Sadako (or Teishi) during the Hiean, are wonders. Each list evokes memories and sensations rather than judgments and thereby disagreements. Some of my favorite lists of Shonagon’s:

109. Things That Are Distant Though Near

Festivals celebrated near the Palace

Relations between brothers, sisters, and other members of a family who do not love each other.

The zigzag path leading up to the temple at Kurama

The last day of the Twelfth Month and the first of the First

And especially,

44. Things That Cannot Be Compared

Summer and winter. Night and day. Rain and sunshine. Youth and age. A person's laughter and his anger. Black and white. Love and hatred. The little indigo plant and the great philodendron. Rain and mist.

When one has stopped loving somebody, one feels that he has become someone else, even though he is still the same person.

In a garden full of evergreens the crows are all asleep. Then, towards the middle of the night, the crows in one of the trees suddenly wake up in a great flurry and start flapping about. Their unrest spreads to the other trees, and soon all the birds have been startled from their sleep and are cawing in alarm. How different from the same crows in daytime!

The lady Murasaki Shikibu, author of the Tale of Genji, one of the earliest novels ever written (circa 1000 A.D.) and contemporary of Shonagon, described her as “frivolous”, and concluded that “[h]er chief pleasure consists in shocking people, and, as each eccentricity becomes only too painfully familiar, she gets driven on to more and more outrageous methods of attracting notice.” But this is precisely the virtue of lists such as Shonagon’s; they get people to notice by pointing to new dimensions and new collections, and not simply to our judgment. If we can't be outrageous with the playful, where can we be?

The lists don’t have to consist of exotica. Nick Hornby did a remarkable job of using simple lists to construct a seductive story in High Fidelity. But when they do consist of exotica they really seduce, as in the case of many of Borges' stories. It’s probably a little late now, but for next season, I suggest new kinds of lists, ones that speak of our wit, creativity, and even whim.

Happy Monday and a Happy New Year.