The loveliness of lists

Lists are not the bane of my life, far from it. Without lists, my life would be as bereft as a day without music, as soulless as a world with books, and as empty as a fridge without cheese. 

Without lists, we’d all be lost. There’d be no dictionaries, telephone directories, or electoral rolls. There’d be no family trees, recipes with step-by-step instructions, or classical chart on the radio. There’d be no to-do lists, grocery lists or wine lists.

Not only do I keep all these types of lists, in my mind is a list of lists, the metadata that tells me what lists I have and where to find them. The scribbled shopping list on the tear-off pad on the table may or may not get transferred to the tick list on my phone. For my Samsung is where most of the lists now live. The older ones – books to read, films to see – are in an early, clumsy notes app; the newer ones are in checklists that I can access anytime from phone or laptop. That’s where the home maintenance and travel packing lists are kept; where I can look up when teeth, eyes, ears, heart and bones next need to be checked. The places I need to be are in the calendar, the people I want to keep in touch with are in my contacts, correspondence in email, and favourite music in Spotify playlists.

Indeed, you may be thinking, this woman makes too many lists. But lists make sense of the world. They bring order to the randomness and chaos that hover around the edges of every day threatening shambles, disarray and distress.

All those lists let me push mundane things out of mind, tucked away where I know they’ll be safe, so I can get on with what really matters. They create room for spontaneity, and quiet mental space for becoming immersed in reading or writing, playing the piano, or walking and talking with friends. I suspect that without lists – listless – free-floating anxiety about what I might have forgotten or the spread of Covid-19 would get in the way of discovering, connecting and creating.

Even God had a to-do list; not a very taxing one, as there was only one thing a day for a week on it, beginning with step one, create the heavens and Earth, and ending with step seven, sit back, rest, and watch the drama unfold. 

Some people make lists in all sorts of places, then never look back at them. They can be hard to live with. Especially if you work with them too. ‘I know I wrote it down somewhere’, I’d hear my husband (at the time) say when he asked, yet again, how to send a newsletter, or if I checked in to see if a cheque had been deposited. 

His lists were about as useful as the ones we make each new year’s day intended to create a better version of ourselves. Which we all know we’ll fail at. Luckily, for most of us, lists like the actions in the minutes of a meeting or the deadlines we agreed to meet are more pressing.

Even on holiday, when we temporarily push aside the action plans and the due dates, we have a mental list of how we plan to relax. It probably says ‘do nothing’. Followed by ‘lie on the beach, read a book, drink cocktails’.

The lists in our lives start early, certainly by school age, when we’re introduced to the alphabet, the times table and spelling lists. I fondly remember the yellow-orange-and-black checked rough-textured cover of the spelling book and its treasure trove of words in levels of increasing difficulty. In the school library, and perhaps at home too if your parents prioritised such an expensive outlay or had been persuaded by an eloquent door-to-door salesman, were encyclopaedias of all the knowledge in the world, neatly packaged and organised from A to Z.  Mum and Dad bought the 16 slim volumes of the Golden Book Encyclopaedia, the colour illustrations intended to enliven the dry subject matter within. And we inherited the faded-blue set of the Arthur Mee Children’s Encyclopaedia, with its scattering of black and white pictures, from grandparents. I turned to Arthur Mee on rainy days when boredom threatened for its stories, poetry, and the sections on things to make and things to do. 

A host of dedicated souls are employed much of their working lives as list makers. Sir Lesley Stephen, the distinguished intellectual and father of genius writer, Virginia Woolf, spent six years from 1885 to 1891, compiling and editing the UK dictionary of national biography. More recently, the explosion of technology and big business has called for a profusion of how-to lists in user guides, online help and procedure manuals. It’s a job I ended up doing for many years, perhaps still smarting from the words of my Primer 3 teacher who critiqued my seven-year-old attempt at a poem, a description of autumn – grey sky, bare branches, orange leaves falling – with the remark that I’d never make a writer, there were too many lists.  Still I ask myself, ‘Do I make too many lists? Is that my fatal flaw?’ 

But lists are popular. The internet is crammed with them. Marketers intrigue us with titles like 10 superfoods to boost a healthy diet, 5 ways to wellbeing, and the 10 longest novels ever written. The 13 volumes of Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu at 1.5 million words comes in fourth, Clarissa by Samuel Richardson and A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell make it into the top 10 at around a million words each, but War and Peace misses out. It’s only about half that length. Every year too, the media entices us with lists of the year’s best reads, greatest films, and most unmissable Netflix series. 

My favourite list is printed in a tiny glossy concertina-fold-out pocket guide to wine tasting. It has all the vocabulary you could ever want to describe every variety of wine; it’ll come in handy if I ever land a job as a wine writer, or feel a need to impress people with the refinement of my palate. As it is, a single word, ‘mellow’, is sufficient among friends to describe a good Sangiovese, Merlot or Shiraz, all red wines at the medium to intense end of the boldness spectrum. There’s a pattern and predictability to my list of preferred types of wine.

Lists are the basis of most patterns: lists of numbers or shapes or objects. Like the recurring sequences on wrapping paper or wallpaper. Or the familiar pattern of the seasons as spring, summer, autumn and winter repeat, and the flowers bud, bloom, fade and decay, year after year. Beneath the apparent haphazardness of the world we live in, no doubt there are more patterns and hierarchies, and even a purpose, we cannot discern. And that perhaps accounts for our abiding love of lists.

6 thoughts on “The loveliness of lists

  1. I agree with Rachel. But I never keep lists on my mobile phone – in this country they’re often stolen; never mind the accident factor – dropping, damaging. I have an old Stone Age notebook with hard cover and paper pages. Nobody is going to mug me for that !

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How annoying that phone theft should be that common. It’s handy that a lot of the apps, like Google Keep my favourite, safekeep the info online as well. But nothing matches the ease of scribbling something down in a notebook. Most of my writing starts that way.


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