I have a fetish for lists, and anyone following this blog will know that it runs the risk of turning into a compendium of other people’s lists: “Greatest films… best books… tallest buildings…” I regret not buying a book I stumbled upon when I was doing the Christmas shopping called something like The World’s Top Ten. It was a lavishly illustrated hardback, very like the Guinness Book of Records, filled with nothing but lists of the ten biggest, best, smallest, quickest, oldest… whatever. It could have kept me blogging for decades.Anyway. The point of this post is to defend my fascination with lists. Oliver Burkeman has an article about the importance of making checklists – whether in cooking or in heart surgery:
The Checklist Manifesto, by the journalist and medic Atul Gawande, takes as its starting point the astonishing things that happen when hospital doctors are required to tick off items on checklists as they carry out routine but critical procedures. In one trial, the rate of infections from intravenous drips fell from 11% of all patients to zero simply because staff were compelled to work through a checklist of no-brainer items, such as washing their hands. Many doctors grumbled: it was more paperwork, it wasted time and it insulted their professional judgment by implying that they needed reminding of stuff they’d learned in the first month of medical school. But it worked. A more recent study, which included UK hospitals, suggested that wider use of checklists might prevent a staggering 40% of deaths during treatment. Airline pilots, of course, already rely heavily on them, but Gawande suggests checklists might have impressive effects if adopted throughout business, governance and beyond.
Besides, the stepwise structure of checklists has the salutary effect of narrowing your focus to the next action. When it comes to large undertakings, dwelling on the big picture can be paralysing, and a distraction from the next step, which is the only one you can ever actually take. As they say, I’m told, at Alcoholics Anonymous, where they preach it as a survival strategy, all you have to remember is to “do the next right thing”. Then the next, and the next, and the next.
And just to go up an intellectual gear or two, Burkeman himself put me onto this wonderful interview with the Italian philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco, who believes that list-making is at the root of all human culture:
The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists — the shopping list, the will, the menu — that are also cultural achievements in their own right.
The list doesn’t destroy culture; it creates it. Wherever you look in cultural history, you will find lists. In fact, there is a dizzying array: lists of saints, armies and medicinal plants, or of treasures and book titles. Think of the nature collections of the 16th century. My novels, by the way, are full of lists.
At first, we think that a list is primitive and typical of very early cultures, which had no exact concept of the universe and were therefore limited to listing the characteristics they could name. But, in cultural history, the list has prevailed over and over again. It is by no means merely an expression of primitive cultures. A very clear image of the universe existed in the Middle Ages, and there were lists. A new worldview based on astronomy predominated in the Renaissance and the Baroque era. And there were lists. And the list is certainly prevalent in the postmodern age. It has an irresistible magic.
So I think I am now justified in posting a culturally significant list at least once a week…