I DIDN'T FRIGHTEN my mother with my first list, which I wrote when I was ten, and left on my bureau. In fact, Mom stashed it in her family archives, along with the report cards, crayon drawings, and cuttings of baby hair in glassine envelopes: RUNAWAY GOODS
1 tight suitcase
2 pairs of dungarees and 2 undershirts and underpants
3 pairs of shoes
4 pairs of shirts
coat and jacket
I've been reading, writing, reciting, lulling myself to sleep and whiling away 3 a.m. drives across Nebraska with lists ever since: all the countries and states I've visited (twenty-five and forty-one); places I've lived (thirty-five); the New York Yankees of 1951, including the hard-to-remember Bobby Brown on third base; plus the usual collection of drugs, lovers, fist fights, used cars, important books, and so on. Hasn't everybody?
My thesis is: life without lists is madness. Taking a large view, for instances, can you imagine civilazation (as we know it) without phone books, All-Star lists, resumes, the Queen's New Year's Day honours list, things-to-do lists, Christmas card lists, TV schedules, stock tables, time tables, almanacs, dictionaries, automobile parts catalogs, blacklists, waiting lists, work lists, priority lists and New Year's resolution?
"I made lists," wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald in his memoir of his attempts to recover from a nervous breakdown, "made lists and tore them up, hundreds of lists: of cavalry leaders and football players and cities, and popular tunes and pitchers, and happy times and . . ."
If madness is disorganization, then the list is the second-simplest way to reorganize. The simplest is a dichotomy, dividing things into two kinds, as in sacred and profane, raw and cooked them and us. (There are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don't.) Computers, with their binary, on-off systems, dichotomize. But the glory of man, along with the opposing thumb, is the list, in its various forms as sequence, hierarchy, ranking, paradigm, or taxonomy.
"This sort of thing is as old as anything we know," says Richard Sorenson, head of the National Anthropological Film Center. "There are the 'begat' lists in the Bible. In India, there's a pre-Hindu Vedic ritual called the agnicayana, which involves chanting what amounts to a three-day list of what you have to do to perform the ritual. In Micronesia there are navigation chants which are lists of signs to follow in traveling from one island to another, the color of the water, the shape of the waves, where you see clouds. There are different chants for each trip."
While scientists have always been interested in Listmaking - Aristotle, Linnaeus - it's only since the 1950s that much serious attention has been paid to lists as such, and not just items in them. A branch of anthropology called ethnoscience studies, among other things, how preliterate peoples make their lists, the categories they put things in.
At the University of California at Berkeley, anthropologist Brent Berlin maintains that the facility for making lists is so primal that "we are all pre-diposed to make certain lists." Were one of us dropped into a New Guinea rain forest and told to start classifying everything around us, our basic list headings would probably be the same as a New Guinea native's, says Berlin. "The main categories would be visual: tall, short, leafy and so on."
Listmaking, says Harvard's Roger Brown, a cognitive psychologist, is an "externalization of ways in which our memory is organized." To demonstrate that the listmaking capacity is not entirely arbitrary, Brown has come up with a list of lists we can't readily make, such as "lists of things which weigh less than an ounce; books with brown covers, by title; words of Latin derivation (except for some philologists)."
Like Berlin, Brown cites George Miller, of Rockefeller University, and his famous essay, "The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two." In the essay, Miller claims, first, that we can keep about seven things in immediate memory, plus or minus two; hence the seven-digit phone number. There's also a magic seven for "absolute judgement." We tend to organize continuums, such as loudness and softness, into about seven categories. Take, for instance, categories in which steak may be served, from raw through charred.Or if you attempt to quickly name the classifications you have for bids, you're apt to have about seven categories in mind, plus or minus tow, such as webfooted, song, innoying (starlings), hawk-like, domestic, sea birds, and weird (for ostiches and dodos. Maybe owls.) In short, while any list can be infinitely long, the headings of those lists tend to be limited in number.
In fact, says Yale's Harold Cocklin, "there's finite number of lits in any culture. But we take listing for granted. If we could grasp all the organizing principles behind lists, we'd be a long wayon the road to understanding all other cultures."