January is a period of quietude and renewal, and at least for me the pleasant hush comes in part because I’m no longer bombarded with so many damn lists. For the whole of December I seemed to be hearing about them not just daily but hourly. There was both a year and a decade to wrap up, after all, and there are so many ways to push information out to people now (and so many people pushing information) that eventually I actually made a concerted effort to avoid reading anything with a “top [number]” in the title. By the time my own list of favorite books appeared, shortly before Christmas, I felt a little ashamed, as if I were an active participant in making our culture worse.
Five Reasons Why I, Exhausted and Cynical in Advance of Christmas, Came to Feel That Compiling a List of My Favorite Books Made Our Culture Worse
1. To make a list is to be a tool in somebody else’s marketing plan. It’s shifting out of criticism and into selling, something best left to advertisers and booksellers.
2. Lists are lazy criticism. The person making the list is rarely inclined (or given the opportunity) to expound at length about a work’s virtue except to say one likes it. This offers the reader neither a window into the work or to the critic’s thought process. They’re Amazon user comments, just organized.
3. Wacky, counterintuitive lists are lazier criticism. Journalists and other writers like to use the term “first-level creativity”—the first idea that comes to your head—to describe approaches to avoid. (Think of a story about steroids accompanied by an illustration of a baseball with a syringe in it.) Publications strive so hard now to avoid that sort of behavior that second-level creativity is now itself a cliche: 20 Albums That You Think Suck But Are Really Great, 25 Bad Films That Have One Great Scene, 10 Books You Should Have Been Reading Instead of Reading the Ones You Did Read Thanks to Some Other List. Thoughtful contrarianism is an asset; knee-jerk contrarianism doesn’t move the peanut forward, intellectually speaking.
4. Lists make for overheated arguments about identity politics. At the beginning of 2009, the universal consensus among just about everybody was that men and women are equally capable of writing good books. Then Publishers Weekly published its exclusively male list of top-ten books of the year. After much fulminating, everybody’s come to agree in 2010 that men and women are equally capable of writing good books. No reasonable person argues that even the Publishers Weekly staff disagrees with this.
5. Lists contribute to a culture of filthy linkbait whoring that just plays into Arianna Huffington’s greedy goddamn hands. Every person who gets access to a Web site’s stats knows that lists bring in traffic. This is naturally seductive, but ultimately contributes to an online hivemind of short attention spans, which is death on sustained commentary.
All of which is to say that I was a tad cranky.
I might’ve calmed down a little had I read Albert Mobilio‘s consideration of Umberto Eco‘s book The Infinity of Lists before the holidays. Lists can, he argues, have a kind of art to them, if approached in the right way:
A list is an intimation of totality, a simulacrum of knowing much, of knowing the right much. We select our ten best big-band recordings, all-time basketball starting fives, mysteries to read this summer; add up the people we’ve slept with or people we wish we had; index our movie-memorabilia collection; count our blessings; list reasons for not getting out of bed. We jot these accounts on envelopes, store them on hard drives, murmur them under our breath as we ride home from work—it’s no accident that many prayers are really nothing more than lists.
One thing Mobilio doesn’t mention doing with our lists, though, is publish them. “List making is therapeutic,” he writes. “[It] offers some measure of respite from the big blooming buzzing.” But what if the lists themselves become the big blooming buzzing that we’re trying to avoid? The spirit of frivolity that can make such organizing admirable and personable can quickly become narcissistic and pointless, just part of the noise. I don’t really believe in points 2, 3, and 4 up there any longer, but I still feel pretty strongly about points 1 and 5—if lists aren’t art, they’re commerce, and as with every other discipline out there, mixing both well isn’t easy. Perhaps the smartest, most honorable thing we can do with our lists is keep them to ourselves.