Jessica Helfand has a wonderful piece on lists over at Design Observer, asking among other evocative questions, are Google search results not a list? (For that matter, why not consider the Internet as a list?)
She doesn’t touch on the list as a rhetorical form, and yet so much writing is list making (sometimes skillfully, sometimes not). The Declaration of Independence is a list (and is also modeled on a Euclidean deductive proof, “from these premises with these steps, we establish that…”) For that matter, Euclid made lists, of a certain kind and flavor, but lists none the less.
Yet writing classes don’t seem (or mine didn’t, at least) to focus on this regularly encountered, humble constituent of writing. The big forms: comparison and contrast, argumentation, narrative, definition, cause and effect get all the air play. Yet each of these rhetorical moves is likely to have lists embedded in them. Of course, perhaps the craft is hiding the “listy” quality of writing; making something with smooth transitions and the lilting rhythm of a good essay requires hiding lists. Plunking through ideas as if they were practice exercises on the piano would not seem to be a promising, although beautiful literary lists abound.
William Gass (not mentioned by Helfand) has rounded up a bunch in an essay called “I Have a Little List” in his book Tests of Time (a beautiful, complex read and not as daunting as his fictions.) Among the many gems he reprints, the famous classification of animals from “a Chinese encyclopedia” and recorded by Jorge Luis Borges,
Attributed to a certain Chinese encyclopaedia entitled ‘Celestial Empire of benevolent Knowledge’. In its remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.
Such older works seem happy to have their lists in the open. Helfand mentions lists in Gilgamesh, and then there are the many “begats” that open the New Testament in the King James version. (“Begat” is so much better a kickoff for the IMAX, Real3D level of the events to come in later pages than ‘became the father of’ used in later translations, which rings of a dreary Updike novel.)
Shakespeare’s Olivia has a wonderful list in Twelfth Night, when she is sparring with Viola, disguised as Cesario, who has a wonderful list of his/her own:
Viola: Excellently done, if God did all.
Olivia. ‘Tis in grain, sir; ’twill endure wind and weather.
Viola. ‘Tis beauty truly blent, whose red and white
Nature’s own sweet and cunning hand laid on:
Lady, you are the cruell’st she alive,
If you will lead these graces to the grave
And leave the world no copy.
Olivia. O, sir, I will not be so hard-hearted; I will give
out divers schedules of my beauty: it shall be
inventoried, and every particle and utensil
labelled to my will: as, item, two lips,
indifferent red; item, two grey eyes, with lids to
them; item, one neck, one chin, and so forth. Were
you sent hither to praise me?
Viola. I see you what you are, you are too proud;
But, if you were the devil, you are fair.
My lord and master loves you: O, such love
Could be but recompensed, though you were crown’d
The nonpareil of beauty!
Olivia. How does he love me?
Viola. With adorations, fertile tears,
With groans that thunder love, with sighs of fire.
Olivia. Your lord does know my mind; I cannot love him:
Yet I suppose him virtuous, know him noble,
Of great estate, of fresh and stainless youth;
In voices well divulged, free, learn’d and valiant;
And in dimension and the shape of nature
A gracious person: but yet I cannot love him;
He might have took his answer long ago.
Viola. If I did love you in my master’s flame,
With such a suffering, such a deadly life,
In your denial I would find no sense;
I would not understand it.
Olivia. Why, what would you?
Viola. Make me a willow cabin at your gate,
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out ‘Olivia!’ O, You should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth,
But you should pity me!
Olivia. You might do much.
(Twelfth Night, Act I, Scene 5)
Back to the mundane and everyday, tipped by the original article I mentioned, here’s a charming compendium of lists, grocerylists.org. And now I’m off to make a few of my own. Milk, Eggs, Vodka and Work.