As a calamitous year draws exhausted to its end, we
gather our garlands of encomia, our cornucopias of
superlatives, our bouquets of critical positivity —
along with our weeds of disdain, our thorn bush-
es of approbation. Baby 2002 plants an infant kick in the departing hind side of Old Man 2001, and we make our lists. Here, in a list, is why we do.
1. We can’t help it. Man is the animal that makes lists. (The evolutionary advantages are too clear to mention.) Shopping lists, laundry lists, blacklists, guest lists, checklists, set lists, shortlists, shit lists. Santa has a list and he’s checking it twice. The written word begins in the symbology of prehistoric accounting.
2. To apprehend time. All lists, being sequential, express time; they are a reckoning or a revelation, they posit the future (Things I Need in Order To Rule the World) or package the past (The 100 Best Drum Solos of 1972). Time flies, but by a list may be caught and caged, recalled and studied.
3. Because organization is good. A list clears away the clutter, sorts the clothes lying strewn upon the bedroom floor of the mind, washes and dries them and folds them neatly away. Life is complicated, but a list is not; occupying a space somewhere between Lit and Math, it is the numbered outline that English composition teachers vainly instructed you to use, barely adorned. Form following function, it is as simple and strong, as structurally elegant and usefully practical as a Shaker box or modernist office block.
4. To sharpen focus. While we usually see the world as a kind of blur and are for the most part satisfied with a vague comprehension of the events and objects around us, the dedicated list maker, in attempting a kind of critical finality, is forced to more seriously consider his subject, to look long, to study hard. (Of course, you can just toss these things off if you want to, but you only cheat yourself.)
5. Self-revelation. In seriously considering his subject, the list maker also comes to understand more precisely his own values, prejudices, tastes. You Are What You Choose.
6. They are compact. The evolutionary happenstance of the five-digit human hand (times two) accustoms us to decimal thinking. Ten is in any case a happy amount, neither too few nor too many; it has a kind of authority, but remains manageable. (It carries the weight of a double figure, but is only a step away from nine.) A writer I knew once ranked every last record he had heard that year — and he had heard hundreds — and while that was undoubtedly an interesting and perhaps revealing exercise, it was also antithetical to the essentially exclusionary, chaff-winnowing nature of list making. We are not as interested in the Hot 100 as in the Top 10.
7. They reinforce the social fabric. Often lonely in our convictions, we search for critics and commentators with whom we agree, for those who might have put on their whatever list that one little film or independent record or awkward political moment we too felt unfairly overlooked or insufficiently appreciated. Such discoveries justify us, create a sense of intellectual companionship, forge righteous bonds of connection.
8. Amusing to make and to share. List making is a kind of parlor game. It’s fun at parties — though like most things that are fun at parties, tiresome when done to excess and a possible gateway to heated words and even violence, especially among pop critics and movie reviewers. (It’s sad, really.) And readers eat them up — and at year’s (or decade’s, or millennium’s) end they expect, nay, demand them: For what is an epoch without its recap?
9. EZ to read. Skimming is allowed.
10. (Relatively) Easy to write. Though compiling the list may take thought, the list itself is technically simple to compose, and may remain epigrammatic, unexplicated — it can be left to you, Reader, culturally astute as you are, to fill in the blanks, to supply the missing details, to draw conclusions for yourself. (“Harry Potter” — ’nuff said!) This is especially useful on a tight deadline at a time of year when there are a lot of social functions to attend, at which alcohol may be served.
And a special bonus reason:
11. Without lists, life is listless.