By PHIL PATTON
NY Times: September 1, 2012
WITH school starting and vacations ending, this is the month, the season of the list. But face it. We’re living in the era of the list, maybe even its golden age. The Web click has led to the wholesale repackaging of information into lists, which can be complex and wonderful pieces of information architecture. Our technology has imperceptibly infected us with “list thinking.”
Lists are the simplest way to organize information. They are also a symptom of our short attention spans.
The crudest of online lists are galaxies of buttons, replacing real stories. “Listicles,” you might say. They are just one step beyond magazine cover lines like “37 Ways to Drive Your Man Wild in Bed.” Bucket lists have produced competitive list making online. Like competitive birders, people check off books read or travel destinations visited.
But lists can also tell a story. Even the humble shopping list says something about the shopper — and the Netflix queue, a “smart list” built on experience and suggestion algorithms, says much about the subscriber.
Lists can reveal personal dramas. An exhibit of lists at the Morgan Library and Museum showed a passive-aggressive Picasso omitting his bosom buddy, Georges Braque, from a list of recommended artists.
We’ve come a long way from the primitive best-seller lists and hit parade lists, “crowd sourced,” if you will, from sales. We all have our “to-do” lists, and there is a modern, sophisticated form of the list that is as serious as the “best of…” list is frivolous. That is the checklist.
The surgeon Atul Gawande, in his book “The Checklist Manifesto,” explains the utility of the list in assuring orderly procedures and removing error. For all that society has accomplished in such fields as medicine and aviation, he argues, the know-how is often unmanageable — without a checklist.
A 70-page checklist put together by James Lovell, the commander of Apollo 13, helped him navigate the spacecraft back to Earth after an oxygen tank exploded. Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger safely ditched his Airbus A-320 in the Hudson River after consulting the “engine out” checklist, which advised “Land ASAP” if the engines fail to restart.
At a local fast-food joint, I see checklists for cleanliness, one list for the front of the store and one for restrooms — a set of inspections and cleanups to be done every 30 minutes. The list is mapped on photo views, with numbers of the tasks over the areas in question. A checklist is a kind of story or narrative and has a long history in literature. The heroic list or catalog is a feature of epic poetry, from Homer to Milton. There is the famed catalog of ships and heroes in “The Iliad.”
Homer’s ships are also echoed in a list in Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter”: “‘The time has come,’ the walrus said, ‘to talk of many things: Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax — of cabbages — and kings.’” This is the prototype of the surrealist list.
There are other sorts of lists in literature. Vladimir Nabokov said he spent a long time working out the list (he called it a poem) of Lolita’s classmates in his famous novel; the names reflect the flavor of suburban America in the 1950s and give sly clues to the plot as well. There are hopeful names like Grace Angel and ominous ones like Aubrey McFate.
Simple lists of words can quickly take on many shades of meanings. In the 1800s, Peter Roget, an obsessive list maker and polymath, created the classification of synonyms that became “Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases.” The literary critic and language expert H. L. Mencken put together his own list of synonyms for the word “drunk.” They included: snooted, stewed, jugged, jagged and pifflicated.