Life In Lists

by Mary Hrovat

Image of columnar basalt at Devils Postpile National Monument, California
Columnar basalt, Devils Postpile National Monument, California. Photo by Eric T. Gunther; shared under a Creative Commons license.

The other day I was looking up an anthropological discovery I’d seen mentioned online someplace. The discovery seemed a little dodgy upon closer inspection, but in my search I found the Wikipedia page List of places with columnar jointed volcanics. I wasn’t looking for information about volcanic rocks that have undergone columnar jointing, but I was happy that this wonderfully browsable list exists. 

When I hear the word lists, I tend to think of the kind that are perhaps necessary but rarely enjoyable: the shopping list (often incomplete, seldom structured well with regard to the layout of the grocery store) or the to-do list (possibly a bad idea altogether). There are also lists that make me feel like I’m being forced down the neck of a narrow funnel with small benefit to myself: anything that begins “Your application must contain the following” or “You may be eligible for this tax credit if any two of the following are true (but see also the table on page 129).” 

I’m also not fond of the lists encountered when seeking healthcare, although on rare occasions I’ve found them mildly entertaining. Once I was going down a list of symptoms to identify the ones I’ve experienced, and I asked my companion the difference between anxiety and nervousness. “If you have to ask…,” he said, smiling. “Oh yes, I’m going to check both boxes,” I said. “I was just curious.” A little further down the list, we puzzled over whether “dry mough” meant dry mouth or dry cough. In short, this list seemed a bit slapdash. Technical checklists should be the clearest and least ambiguous of all lists, but at least this one’s ambiguity was amusing. (Besides, it was an eye doctor’s office; if they really cared about my mough, they would have corrected that error long ago.)

On the other hand, some lists make me happy, like the list of places with columnar-jointed volcanic rocks. They slice across reality in a way I didn’t expect. This type of list can also demonstrate the inexhaustible richness of almost anything in life, if you look at it closely. When I found the lists of paleocontinents and prehistoric lakes in Wikipedia, for example, I learned that there are far more of these things than I had thought.

Wikipedia is a rich source of this type of list. I have favorites I like to browse—for example, lists of astronomical objects and astronomical instruments—but I often find interesting things in unexpected places. Lists of things in nature—the world’s largest lakes or smallest organisms, for example—are bound to contain something intriguing or peculiar. Lists of the names of birds (plants, insects, places…) can read almost like poetry.

In fact, lists are commonly used in literature, in particular by poets. Walt Whitman weaves exuberant lists into his poems: things seen on the street, the workers he hears singing. In Eliot Weinberger’s essay “The Stars” (which appears in his book An Elemental Thing), he compiles a gorgeous list of descriptions of the stars from folklore, myths, and the star names recorded by various cultures. It’s both daunting and educational to see how other writers have used lists in dazzling displays of variety or to accumulate details to good effect.

I use lists fairly frequently in my journals and notes, although I hadn’t noticed this until I started working on this piece. Some are predictable (books I want to read, writers or artists or musicians I want to look up), and others are idiosyncratic (the five hurricanes or tropical storms in 2021 that had the same names as people I know).

I’ve recorded the dates at which each season begins locally according to temperature data (calculated by one of my sons), as well as amusing place names from Paul Theroux’s book The Kingdom by the Sea (Wartling, Flimby, and Port Wrinkle, for example). I have a list of birds whose names are also verbs (grouse, snipe…) and another for fish (flounder, carp). Some lists are essentially journal entries: lists of films I’ve seen in a theater by year, for example. 

I recently made a list of every permanent street address I’d ever had. I’ve taken to writing lists of the names of people I used to work with at various jobs—the kind of information that was once so familiar to me that I never thought to write it down before, but now can be hard to recall. I’ve even made a list of the license plate numbers of long-gone cars (I mean, long gone—my mother’s 1965 Plymouth Valiant, for example). I’m not sure why.

After years of playing with file systems, physical and virtual, I still haven’t solved the problem of how to find things that I’ve written down for future reference, but lists somehow seem like good containers. They’re my somewhat inept response to the situation described by Louis MacNeice in his poem “Snow”: “World is crazier and more of it than we think, / Incorrigibly plural.” I understand that I can’t capture everything, but still I keep both a paper notebook and a folder in Notes called “Lists.”

Some of the lists I make for myself are gestures toward pieces I could someday write; a list may become an annotated list, from which an essay or article might eventually grow. I appreciate them for their optimism and openness, traits that are sometimes hard for me to embody.

Some of my lists are rather rudimentary; a list of ways to begin chess games has only three entries. However, they’re very good entries: the halibut gambit, the reverse rat, and the hippopotamus defense. I don’t know how I ran across them. I probably recorded them in a spirit of sheer glee, but perhaps I was thinking of how they’d work as titles. (I might read a mystery novel called The Halibut Gambit, especially if I knew that the next one in the series was called The Reverse Rat.) 

Another list, “Good index entries,” hasn’t yet gotten beyond a single item, but it’s also a high-quality item: “Cats, self-immolating.” It comes from The Way of Herodotus: Travels with the Man Who Invented History, by Justin Marozzi; I can’t remember the story behind these mythical cats. I enjoy browsing indexes, and I suppose I made this list in the hope that sooner or later I’d find additional entries worthy of being recorded. 

Lists, I’m somewhat surprised to realize, are among my comforts—at least a certain type of list. They provide me with a place to store ideas; they inspire me and broaden my horizons. They demonstrate how much there is to know, and how little of it I know. They call me on to further study.

If I’m too far down in the depths, they might not help much, or I may get lost in aimless wandering through disconnected factoids. In addition, sometimes it feels like a colossal waste of time to loiter on Wikipedia learning about green politics or the birds of various regions. But what else are we here for but to learn where we are and respond to what we learn?

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