Who Invented These Lists?

Mid-January 2022

Photo by Polina Kovaleva from Pexels

In a sense, I’m the last person on earth who should be uttering the above question. Professionally, I’ve had almost daily contact with lists for three-and-a-half decades.

Other folks, especially folks who obsessively tote up their daily tasks or feel compelled to enumerate their annual list of resolves, may not ever feel the urge to ask it. I think that must reflect one’s internal wiring.

Try as I might, I couldn’t find any photograph containing a list that reflected my jumbled reality. Personal lists appear to be visitors from a Marie Kondo world, perfectly proportioned, neatly aligned, the essential tool in establishing personal primacy. They stand in sharp rebuke to the concept of entropy.

And, this being January, they are everywhere.

In fact, they started appearing before the year turned. No subject is immune from a list. Travel. Investments. Pets. Jobs. Careers. Movies. Music. Books. The supply is endless, so must be the demand.

Photo by George Milton from Pexels

On one level, I  understand the needs lists fill. They suggest certitude. If you just make these choices, pursue these options, take these steps (in order), everything will work out. The lure of the list is powerful, even if it escapes me.

Consider the aesthetic list categories. Even if you hate every book or record listed, you’ll at least know what the majority of people or critics are thinking. It’s always good to know where you stand, right?

I admit to having a blind spot on the matter. When it comes to music I’ve stated that lists merely serve as a starting point for impassioned arguments. And in any case, it’s difficult to separate out a list from the sales charts published weekly. Popular music may be the only genre that requires lists.

The written word strikes me differently. I know there are books I should read, but I don’t keep a list of them. They sit about me, daring me to crack the spine. What I really don’t understand are lists of books attributed to individuals. We used to hear about the books on the President’s nightstand until we had a non-reading President. Now we hear of Elon Musk’s.

Do I  really believe Musk has read all 5 volumes of The Wealth of Nations?  I have an easier time believing he’s read Peter Thiels’ musings. Billionaire bros, you know.  And in the end, does it matter?

I suspect this Franklin is the one Musk fanboys care most about.
Photo by David McBee from Pexels

The person drawn to a celebrity reading list misses the point, I think. The books that make me think might not be the ones that prompt you to. Discovery, not task completion, is the point.

Musk purports to have been immensely influenced by Walter Isaacson‘s biography of Benjamin Franklin. Like the sociologist Michael Wood, I am fascinated by Franklin, or rather by the way the story of Franklin is used to illustrate contemporary matters.

For Musk, Franklin serves as the exemplar of the entrepreneur. For aspiring Musks it’s all but certain they’ll be drawn to his lists of virtues and the tasks and schemes for achieving mastery of them. So, let’s let Franklin have the last word:

My scheme of ORDER gave me the most trouble; and I found that, tho’ it might be practicable where a man’s business was such as to leave him the disposition of his time, that of a journeyman printer, for instance, it was not possible to be exactly observed by a master, who must mix with
the world, and often receive people of business at their own hours. Order, too, with regard to places for things, papers, etc., I found extreamly difficult to acquire. I had not been early accustomed to it, and, having an exceeding good memory, I was not so sensible of the inconvenience attending want of method. This article, therefore, cost me so much painful
attention, and my faults in it vexed me so much, and I made so little progress in amendment, and had such frequent relapses, that I was almost ready to give up the attempt, and content myself with a faulty character in that respect … something, that pretended to be reason, was every now and then suggesting to me that such extream nicety as I exacted of myself might be a kind of foppery in morals, which, if it were known, would make me ridiculous; that a perfect character might be
attended with the inconvenience of being envied and hated; and that a benevolent man should allow a few faults in himself, to keep his friends in countenance. (emphasis added)




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