Lists have power. There’s a sense that we’ve achieved dominion over a thing when we’ve snugged it into place within a list: to order is akin to ordering about.
Sometimes this is naughty, sometimes nice, as that chubby list-maker Santa might say. Joe McCarthy, one of Wisconsin’s most disgraceful sons, waved that notorious piece of paper over his head in the US Senate, saying, “I have here in my hand a list of two hundred and five people that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party…”
But then, to go to the other pole (in so many ways) there’s Indiana’s son, Cole Porter, whose delightful list is still learned and repeated today: “… You’re the top! / You’re Napoleon Brandy. / You’re the purple light / Of a summer night in Spain, / You’re the National Gallery / You’re Garbo’s salary, You’re cellophane… ” [Click here to see all 60 of the items in Porter's list.]
I’ve pretty much always liked lists. Way back when there were books, I bought a copy of The Chatto Book of Cabbages and Kings, an anthology of lists used by writers in their writing, a true trove of wonders, such as:
- the catalogue of the ships in the Iliad,
- the more than 200 characteristics of Triboulet “set forth and blazed” by Rabelais’ Pantagruel and Panurge (“Limbecked and distilled… Nocturnal… Comportable… Occidental… Wretched and heartless… Trifling… Fooded… Astrological and figure-flinging… Thick and threefold… Genethliac and horoscopal...”)
- Roland Barthes’ list of likes and dislikes (+”…Glen Gould, too-cold beer…” -”…Vivaldi, telephoning…“)
- Thomas Hood’s marvellous litany of what makes up November (“…No sky – No earthly view – No distance looking blue…“)
- And a sadly still appropriate “Lament for Afghanistan” by Bruce Chatwin (“…the green tea flavoured with cardamoms; the grapes we cooled in the snow-melt…“)
And now I have made a list, I see. It’s that seductive.
But I won’t go on, because two’s safe and three would make a list.