15 August 2008

Lists and the Listless

Oh, if we denizens of the internets don't love us some lists! Me too, me too! I used to make lists of best this-that-and-another-thing -- best 3 home appliances I have used in my life (the pink feather duster always tops the list!), best 673 songs to listen to while shoveling gravel, etc. -- but there was something terribly authoritarian about it all, and the rabidly anti-authoritarian part of myself screamed back at the little tin dictator in my soul that such list-making is nothing more than a goofy manifestation of a fascist impulse. (The rabidly anti-authoritarian part of my soul uses the word "fascist" without much precision, alas. The more moderate anti-authoritarian part of my soul has read both Fascism: A Very Short Introduction and The Anatomy of Fascism and even the Wikipedia entry, so would never think of applying the term to such an innocuous little hobby as list-making.)

The lists I like these days are of the personal kind -- the books that, for whatever idiosyncratic reasons, particularly influenced a person, the books a person keeps near the desk, the movies a person watches to cheer them up (or bring them down), the animal species a person particularly likes to taunt at the zoo... Lists that revel in their subjectivity.

Samuel Delany has pointed to the opening of Thomas M. Disch's story "Descending" as an exemplary use of listing to efficiently suggest a character:
Catsup, mustard, pickle, relish, mayonnaise, two kinds of salad dressing, bacon grease, and a lemon. Oh yes, two trays of ice cubes. In the cupboard it wasn't much better: jars and boxes of spices, flour, sugar, salt -- and a box of raisins!

An empty box of raisins.

Not even any coffee. Not even tea, which he hated. Nothing in the mailbox but a bill from Underwood's: Unless we receive the arrears on your account....
A fine opening, and marvelous list to offer us a glimpse of a person.

The urge to list has led recently to the kind that least interests me -- X Science Fiction Novels of the Last Y Years That are Most Important, Yeah Yeah Yeah! -- although I was pleased to discover David Moles likes one of my favorite LeGuin books, Four Ways to Forgiveness, and so I now feel less alone. I do like to see both what is individual (e.g. David's choice of one of LeGuin's more neglected books) and what gets left out. Silences and lacunae. But I'm also the sort of perverse person who, when told n, o, and p are Q's best books ... immediately goes out and reads the others instead.

Anyway, the point of this was not to make fun of other people's hobbies (fascists!), but to point to two particularly interesting lists -- Ron Silliman's list of theoretical books that particularly influenced him and Jeff Ford's list of books that are part of the Breakfast of Champions for Fantasy Writers (in other words, "non-fiction books that are just so chocked full of cool ideas, descriptions of interesting phenomena, exotic tidbits of history, or compelling instances of the human condition that they make great fodder for the creation of Fantasy fiction"). Subjective, not authoritarian lists. Lists that tells us a lot about the list-maker and also point us toward books we might not otherwise know about.

Silliman has also written a few blog posts (here and here) that expand on why some of these books were important to him, the connections he sees between them, and the implications of their interest to him. He also offers some more general thoughts on that thing that has come to be called Theory and gets some intelligent and thoughtful comments from readers.

Since list-making is a kind of parlor game, it might be fun to create another parlor game from these lists: list five books from the various lists now floating out there on the many blogs you read, then imagine what would happen if a person read all five of those books one after the other. For instance:I expect the effect of reading all five of these books one after the other, as quickly as possible, would be to make the reader feel a lot more sympathy for the various hallucinations and strange experiences of Philip K. Dick during the 1970s.

No comments:

Post a Comment