Yesterday, an anonymous author writing under the moniker "GCchange" published a list on Listverse, a go-to website for what it calls the “Ultimate Top 10 Lists.” GCchange’s list was called “Top 10 Ways You Could Live Forever.” Among the ways to live forever? “Nanobots,” “Mind-to-Computer Uploading,” and “Cryonics.”
Writing anonymously for the internet was, surprisingly, not on the list. Neither was sarcasm.
According to semiotician and all around homme de lettres Umberto Eco, there’s another item we could add to that list, however. Wait for it… It’s the act of making lists.
In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Eco explains that list-making isn’t just, as the Atlantic’s Rebecca J. Rosen quipped, because we “journalists are hard up for content around the holidays” (although that’s surely part of it). It is, he says, “a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don't want to die.”
We also, it seems, love writing stories about why we love making lists. In that spirit, here’s a list of the Top 5 Stories on the Internet about Why We Love Making Lists. Like so many best-of lists on the internet, it should be understood when I say “Top 5,” it really means “the best five I found after a couple Google searches.”
5. “Why We Love Lists,” Psychologies Magazine:
As writer Catherine Jones notes, big, annual best-of lists—like the “Celebrity 100” and “Richest People in America” lists by Forbes, the wealth porn list-maker nonpareil—are wildly popular. Psychologists have an explanation, Jones explains:
According to psychologist Dr Timothy Pychyl, half of us write something down on a list after we’ve completed it, just to feel a rush when we come to cross it off. ‘This indicates someone who has a need for achievement and control,’ he says.
From chores to shopping, list making can help us make sense of the small things, but it’s also a handy way to make sense of the more important things in life. ‘People tend to write big-picture lists at New Year or on their birthday,’ says Pychyl. ‘But doing it more in our everyday lives allows us to escape from the stress of the mundane.’
Not to be outdone by itself, Forbes places “We know it was well planned” as number two in a list that cites exactly zero authorities but the author’s own, and probably took 20 minutes to write.
3. “The Man Who Collected 1,320 Best-Books-of-2012 Lists,” The Atlantic
As the title indicates, Rosen's article tells the story of writer and web developer, David Gutowski, who has spent five years collecting and updating a “massive meta-list” of best-books lists for his blog, Largehearted Boy. As of Dec. 31, Gutowski had collected 1,320 best-books lists for 2012.
“Looking at his of list of lists,” Rosen writes,
you really can see the redundancy -- not to mention excess -- of this annual practice. But Gutowski sees something more beautiful in it: ‘I am continually amazed at the quality websites I have discovered through this project,’ he writes, ‘and am always heartened by the continued love for the written word in all its forms.’
This gets a higher ranking than the Forbes list because it is self-aware and gives us more than a few unresearched pop-psych theories from the author’s brain. It scores points for a bit of irreverent creativity, as well. Items on this list include: “7. The word "list" can be tracked back to William Shakespeare,” and “6. Making lists can help make you famous.”
1. ‘We Like Lists Because We Don’t Want to Die,” Der Spiegel
The best article about why we like making lists is the interview with Umberto Eco, excerpted here at length:
Umberto Eco: The list is the origin of culture. It's part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order—not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart's librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists—the shopping list, the will, the menu -- that are also cultural achievements in their own right.
SPIEGEL: Should the cultured person be understood as a custodian looking to impose order on places where chaos prevails?
Eco: The list doesn't destroy culture; it creates it. Wherever you look in cultural history, you will find lists. In fact, there is a dizzying array: lists of saints, armies and medicinal plants, or of treasures and book titles. Think of the nature collections of the 16th century. My novels, by the way, are full of lists.
SPIEGEL: Accountants make lists, but you also find them in the works of Homer, James Joyce and Thomas Mann.
Eco: Yes. But they, of course, aren't accountants. In “Ulysses,” James Joyce describes how his protagonist, Leopold Bloom, opens his drawers and all the things he finds in them. I see this as a literary list, and it says a lot about Bloom. Or take Homer, for example. In the “Iliad,” he tries to convey an impression of the size of the Greek army. At first he uses similes: “As when some great forest fire is raging upon a mountain top and its light is seen afar, even so, as they marched, the gleam of their armour flashed up into the firmament of heaven.” But he isn't satisfied. He cannot find the right metaphor, and so he begs the muses to help him. Then he hits upon the idea of naming many, many generals and their ships.
SPIEGEL: But, in doing so, doesn't he stray from poetry?
Eco: At first, we think that a list is primitive and typical of very early cultures, which had no exact concept of the universe and were therefore limited to listing the characteristics they could name. But, in cultural history, the list has prevailed over and over again. It is by no means merely an expression of primitive cultures. A very clear image of the universe existed in the Middle Ages, and there were lists. A new worldview based on astronomy predominated in the Renaissance and the Baroque era. And there were lists. And the list is certainly prevalent in the postmodern age. It has an irresistible magic.
SPIEGEL: But why does Homer list all of those warriors and their ships if he knows that he can never name them all?
Eco: Homer's work hits again and again on the topos of the inexpressible. People will always do that. We have always been fascinated by infinite space, by the endless stars and by galaxies upon galaxies. How does a person feel when looking at the sky? He thinks that he doesn't have enough tongues to describe what he sees. Nevertheless, people have never stopping describing the sky, simply listing what they see. Lovers are in the same position. They experience a deficiency of language, a lack of words to express their feelings. But do lovers ever stop trying to do so? They create lists: Your eyes are so beautiful, and so is your mouth, and your collarbone … One could go into great detail.
SPIEGEL: Why do we waste so much time trying to complete things that can't be realistically completed?
Eco: We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That's why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It's a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don't want to die.
Readers, I’m afraid to do a search for “Top 5 articles about articles about why we love writing lists.” Specifically, I am afraid it will cause my computer will explode and will kill me or my dog. But if you find it out there, please don’t hesitate to blog about it and post the link in the comments section.