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Your list… is on my list

As each year ends, we pause to take stock… in list form. I pondered this phenomenon (in non-list form) in the A2 section of The Age on 27 December 2008.

It’s that time of year. Not post-Christmas sales, summer holidays or crappy TV programming. It’s list-making season! You know the ones: “Best albums/books/films/TV of 2008”, “Events that shaped the year”, “Fashion predictions for 2009”, “They said it: 2008’s top quotes”, “Best dressed/worst dressed”, “The year in literature”, and what have you.

List-making happens everywhere in popular culture. As we know from Thomas Keneally’s book and Steven Spielberg’s film, industrialist Oskar Schindler rescued hundreds of people from the Holocaust by listing them as essential workers. Santa Claus endlessly consults and revises his list of good and bad children. Hall and Oates sing kisses onto a metaphorical list “of the best things in life”.

Yet we rarely ask ourselves why we’re so into list articles. Cynical editors will extol the virtues of “listicles” for those quiet times when staff are on holidays. Lists have a broad-brush formula, easy to write and to prepare in advance. Still, why are they so seductive to read?

List-making is a brilliant way of storing, organising and transferring knowledge. It’s an analogue technology as precise and effective as any digital one – and indeed, often emulated online. Make lists in your head and write them down in diaries and notebooks. List things by category to foster mental connections, and by priority to make sense of time. Share them on blackboards and whiteboards, because lists are effective, concise work and teaching tools.

I love them. It was a running joke at high school that I was like the Spanish Inquisition skit in Monty Python’s Flying Circus – “There are three main categories … no, there are four main categories …” In 2004 I kept a list of the songs that popped into my head, which I called the Headtapes. And this year, I invented the metaphor that creating a to-do list was like loading an automatic tennis serving machine with balls. “Bat the balls!” was 2008’s catchcry.

I love the calming sensation of setting things out this way. Writing a shopping list, for example, makes me feel organised even if I never reach the shops. And at year’s end, we all want this feeling: to knit diverse, bewildering and random events into an overarching and comforting narrative. During the year, we’re too busy with everyday life to consider something’s significance while it’s happening. So, as sleep is the brain’s time to process each day’s information, December 2008 is the time to get us up to speed, fresh for 2009.

Importantly, this is a collective process. It’s easy to feel harassed and disconnected, but reading lists reminds us that culture happens between, around and to everyone. Many online social networks are essentially giant list-making engines. Delicious.com collects and aggregates people’s favourite websites; Last.fm creates dynamic lists of each user’s most played music, and even calculates people’s interpersonal compatibility based on their respective lists.

End-of-year lists help us build personal memories on culture’s superstructure. That’s why they’re often called “wraps”: they bundle up the year and give everyone reference points around which to organise our recollections. If you recall, for example, that Kanye West released the album 808s & Heartbreak in 2008, your memory might encompass how it made you feel, and which episodes in your own life it might have soundtracked.

And because we don’t want to remember our lives as boring and pointless, no list ever details “Servo visits of 2008”, “Slowest-moving pedestrians” or “Kevin Rudd: the year in chinos”. Rather, end-of-year lists celebrate momentous events, arranged in thematic categories in order to suggest that momentousness is everywhere in life.

There is a particular genre of lists that deliberately redeploys this notion of momentousness to wring humour from the mundane or arcane. The website Cracked.com, for instance, consists entirely of lowbrow listicles (“7 historical figures who were absurdly hard to kill”; “5 scientific discoveries that spell doom for your penis”), while ironically earnest hip-lit site McSweeneys.net specialises in self-conscious bagatelles such as: “Underwhelmingly titled hypothetical pro-sports video games from the early 1990s” and “Things that sound like the FedEx truck delivering the job-offer letter that will end my employment drought”.

A good list is compelling because its items are not only individually striking but also strikingly juxtaposed. It’s a kind of pageantry, really. Just as each float in a parade makes sense only as part of a larger spectacle, items on a list draw a wider, more coherent meaning from the way they are selected and arranged.

Lists can also be explicitly hierarchical repositories of cultural capital – that is, deliberate rankings of knowledge, calculated to improve social status. Reading, you don’t just get a powerful sense of the writers’ tastes; you also sense their authority to pronounce upon matters of taste.

There’s always debate regarding what was left off a “definitive” list. This might seem silly, given the deliberate tendentiousness of hierarchical lists, but these tedious contests are actually contests over cultural capital. Combatants pronounce which things are best and worst in order to demonstrate the validity of their own taste. It’s impossible to read such a list without judging our own cultural capital against it. There’s a warm thrill of belonging when we realise our tastes align with the list. Conversely, there’s a pang of alienation in realising how far the list diverges from what we like. Oh no, we’re “not” rather than “hot”! We’re at the stormy end of the barometer rather than basking at the sunny end with the cool crowd!

Lists arouse in the reader a strange craving to acquire the knowledge displayed on the list in order to share its writer’s authority. The most despicably phrased lists inform readers they “must” consume everything on the list before they die. This is a deeply objectionable sentiment because it asks people to find their lives wanting on the basis of criteria that are not of their choosing.

Yet its promise is seductive: here are step-by-step instructions for a life rich in cultural capital. Hierarchical lists are good for this because they prioritise the knowledge experts deem worth learning. After all, even the ability to disagree with the contents of a “hot or not” list requires a certain amount of cultural capital, which is what the lists simultaneously demonstrate and transfer.

End-of-year list making also helps prepare us for next year’s tumult, which is where the predictive list comes in. These can be embarrassing for their authors if the predictions turn out to be inaccurate (mercifully for him, I’ve forgotten the name of the foodie who pronounced several years ago that powdered chocolate on cappuccinos was passé), but they’re wonderfully comforting in their insistence that the future isn’t all that uncertain, because we can see it coming.

There’s a lovely optimism in predictive lists. Like New Year resolutions, they hope things will be different. Although common sense should tell us that change happens either slowly and predictably or quickly and unpredictably (only earlier this year, pundits scoffed at the relatively unknown Barack Obama’s presidential chances), lists always want to predict great leaps of innovation.

You’ll rarely see a list promising that 2009 will be much the same as 2008. This is because lists aim to transform our understanding of the world – and ourselves. Ultimately, we read and write them to become better people.