Lists All Around Us

Are we in a list moment? They seem to be all around us, even gaining their own silly term, listicle. But humans and lists go way back (one of the earliest cuneiform relics is of course a list of kings). List making is perhaps definitional of humans (my list of potential blog entries, most never written, could be my own exhibit A).

This all occurred to me perusing the plethora of lists on Gramophone’s web site. (Gramophone is a classical music magazine published in the UK, and mostly concerned with reviews of recordings. It’s been around a long time and this, plus its focus on classics, is basis for dismissing it out of hand, or treasuring it. I alternate positions.)

Like most digital publications, Gramophone has gotten in line with lists in a big way. Playlists on many topics (Hall of Fame Sopranos, Great Violinists, Inspirational Castratos (that is modern performances of work original written for castratos, not modern inspirational castratos, I hasten to say). This push you to a streaming service after you have read a pithy paragraph or two. I was pleased that the violin list  reminded me of how wonderful the fiddling of Arthur Grumiaux was.

They also have numerous compilation lists, “50 Greatest Chopin Recordings” “50 Greatest Schubert Recordings” and so forth. Since they are aiming at record collectors, and we are nerds by definition, they also have “The 50 Greatest Classical Recordings You’ve (Probably) Never Heard.” (If you want a count, I own or have owned three of the 50  (am a streamer now), heard some others, but more than a few are tantalizing unknowns to me: to wit, soprano Gertrud Grob-Prandl,  & composer, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer; I also didn’t know Stokowski did one of his technicolor arrangements of Wagner’s “Magic Fire Music” with the Houston Symphony–(a whole LP of magic fire for reals?)

Although music is ideal fodder for listomania, it’s hardly limited to that. Every bookstore I go in seems to have at least some entries in book series titled “1000 [insert noun here] before you die” with varied nouns:
Places to see
Books to Read
Songs to Listen To

The spoof writes itself, just slot in a different noun:

1000 Episodes of Law and Order to See Before You Die
1000 Starbucks Latte Varieties to Drink Before You Die
1000 Arguments to Have With Your Spouse, Children, Roommate, Dog About Where They Leave Their Stuff

Granted mine don’t have the ‘bucket list’ frisson of visiting Corfu or reading Ulysses, but they do have the virtue of being easily achieved.
Oddly, there is, at least as far as I know, no parallel “1000” series about things to avoid (call it the anti-bucket list). The 1000 Books Not To Read Before You Die (so many choices!) would be a hit I bet. I can contribute a few entries.

In addition to being easy, lists do emit at least a weak signal as a bit of rhetoric. Little doubt that most composition teachers and editors would discourage lists in prose. Writing-wise their challenges (parallel or not? what order? list within lists?) aren’t very taxing (certainly not the furniture moving-level effort required in the typical essay).

Yet they are writing, and sometimes can shine. That list of guests at Gatsby’s party is a miracle. And lists spin through Stephen Millhauser’s magical novels. Just now, I’m deep into Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways, inspired by the life of naturalist and poet Edward Thomas, whose guides to rambling through the British Isles are quiet classics, and whose bleak-beautiful poetry is newly appealing to me. Macfarlane has this delectable bit for the list-o-mane.

pilgrim paths
green roads
drove roads
corpse roads

he goes on “—say the names of paths out loud and at speed and they become a poem or rite–holloways, bostles, shutes, driftways, lichways, ridings, halterpaths, cartways, carneys, causeways, herepaths.”

Macfarlane’s book is beautifully written, and carries its literary and geographic learning with a light touch.

There is, of course, course another famous list, Ko-Ko’s from The Mikado of potential victims for the Lord High Executioner. Frequently updated, but at its most swell, perhaps, in Martyn Green’s classic recording.

So that ends today’s list!

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