Stephen McGinty: Humanity’s love affair with lists

Listing your needs may be simply for shopping or for keeping your wife happy. Picture: Getty
Listing your needs may be simply for shopping or for keeping your wife happy. Picture: Getty
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UNLIKELY lists that include Andy Murray, Einstein and Mark Twain are not as strange as we first think, with the human urge to jot down our hopes going back to the dawn of history, writes Stephen McGinty.

My notebooks are tattooed with inky “To Do” lists. I make a list almost every day and by the time my head touches the pillow rarely has each task been ticked off. Sometimes I make a list, close the notebook and then instantly forget that I’ve even written it, the neatly lettered tasks, fading away and so forever left undone.

My “To Do” lists have got me into trouble. Many years ago, when I was feeling particularly frazzled, harassed, over-worked and was rarely home I decided that I really needed to make more of an effort with my wife. So I drew up a new “To Do” list and wrote: “cherish wife”. Now this may elicit an “ahhhh” from some readers but from my wife, when she later noticed it on my desk, it prompted an “arrghh”.

She wasn’t upset with the notion, nor with the reference to her marital position rather than first name, but with her ranking. She was No.8 on a list of top ten things to do. She still points out that “Phone Aunt Ellen” was at No. 3. I think I tried to argue that my lists are always handwritten first drafts and that I never go back and re-calibrate the list in order of importance, but it didn’t really wash.

I love lists, because I love the feeling of pinning anxieties to the page, and the sense that the chaos of life has, at least on paper, suddenly taken on a semblance of order. The ubiquity and universal appeal of the list was illustrated this week when the Dutch journalist Wilfred Genee managed to snatch a photograph of Andy Murray with his Ten Commandments for tennis.

In two five-points lists, the Scots former Wimbledon champion had written:

• Be good to yourself.

• Try your best.

• Be intense with your legs

• Be proactive during points

• Focus on each point and the process

And then:

• Try to be the one dictating.

• Try to keep him at the base line, make him move.

• Keep going for your serve.

• Stick to the baseline as much as possible.

• Stay low on passes and use your legs.

The first two points are hopelessly endearing: “be good to yourself” and “try your best”. Even Wimbledon champions need to be bucked up by a little bit of self-help and the list has been an invaluable tool since man first began scraping images on walls. As Shaun Usher, the author of Lists of Note, published by Canongate, pointed out: “We have been writing lists longer than we have been writing letters. There is no human activity that cannot be expressed in a list.”

The compendium of 125 lists drawn from history is a sequel to his bestseller, Letters of Note, and contains a cornucopia of facsimile copies of such lists as that drawn up by a 19-year-old Isaac Newton to document the 57 sins he had already committed or Michelangelo’s shopping list from 1518. There is also a 16th century list of the “eight kindes of drunkenesse” and a list of parts required by Galileo in order to construct a telescope.

Each gives a little insight to an individual from history. We now know that among the list of foods Mark Twain missed while travelling in Europe were: “sarasota potatoes… hot biscuits southern style… hot buckwheat cakes… clear maple syrup.” We know that Benjamin Franklin compiled a dictionary for drunks that ran from “addled” to “very weary” and that the shopping list of a 10th century Tibetan would routinely include “one skin of wolf hide for blankets”. We know that when JFK’s secretary Evelyn Lincoln drew up a list of suspects for the president’s assassination she included the Ku Klux Klan, Jimmy Hoffa, future president Richard Nixon and the current vice-president Lyndon Johnson.

It appears I was not alone in upsetting my wife with a list but my sin of precise placement was nothing as to Albert Einstein’s list detailing how his wife Mileva Maric, should act after an agreement to stay together for the sake of their two sons:

“You will make sure: (1) that my clothes are laundered and kept in good order. (2) that I will receive my three meals regularly in my room (3) that my bedroom and study are kept neat and especially that my desk is left for my use only.”

Later in the list he detailed: “You will not expect any intimacy from me, nor will you reproach me in any way.”

Then there is the sheer class of Johnny Cash’s list headlined: “Things to do today!”

• Not smoke

• Kiss June.

• Not kiss anyone else…

Among my favourite lists in the book is a list of alternative lines drawn up by the producers of Gone With The Wind after they were initially told that it was too offensive to have Rhett Butler reply in answer to Scarlett O’Hara’s question: “Where shall I go? What shall I do?” “Frankly my dear I don’t give a damn.”

Possible substitutions included: “It has become of no concern to me” and “I don’t give a continental.” In the end they stuck with a line that has since become a classic.

In the past decade the list has proved even more popular online where articles have been replaced by “listicles” primarily because the specific number in the headline gives them a rough idea of how long this particular nugget of information will take to consume. Television has also discovered that four hours on a bank holiday can easily be filled with a list of 100 top action movies intercut with the witticisms of a current stand-up.

An explanation as to why we love lists was compiled by Maria Konnikova, author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes for an article that appeared in the New Yorker: “In the current media environment, a list is perfectly designed for our brain. We are drawn to it intuitively, we process it more efficiently, and we retain it with little effort. Faced with a detailed discussion of policies toward China or five insane buildings under construction in Shanghai, we tend to choose the latter bite-sized option, even when we know we will not be entirely satisfied by it. And that’s just fine, as long as we realise that our fast-food information diet is necessarily limited in content and nuance, and thus unlikely to contain the nutritional value of the more in-depth analysis of traditional articles that rely on paragraphs, not bullet points.”

Yet such an explanation, though understandable and genuine, doesn’t make top billing in my “list of explanations as to why we love lists”. The top spot goes to Umberto Eco, the author of the Name of The Rose and a semiotician who explored his own love of lists in a conversation with the German news weekly Der Spiegel.

He began by explaining the ubiquity of lists through out history: “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.”

Then Der Spiegel asked the author: “Why do we waste so much time trying to complete things that can’t be realistically completed?”

Eco replied: “We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That’s why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It’s a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don’t want to die.”


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