Today is the birthday of Umberto Eco (1932-2016), the Italian novelist, literary critic, philosopher and semiotician (one who studies signs and symbols). Although he is best known for his historical mystery novel The Name of the Rose, Eco’s most interesting work might just be a work of nonfiction that he published in 2009 called The Infinity of Lists. In his book, Eco collects and catalogs examples of lists from literature, music, and art, showing over and over how people have turned to lists in an attempt to bring order to chaos (1).
Some people are critical of lists as a writing form. They see the ubiquitous internet listicles as a sign of the apocalypse (See March 19: Listicle Day). Eco, however, views lists differently:
The list doesn’t destroy culture; it creates it. Wherever you look in cultural history, you will find lists. In fact, there is a dizzying array: lists of saints, armies and medicinal plants, or of treasures and book titles. Think of the nature collections of the 16th century. My novels, by the way, are full of lists (2).
The following are some of the lists from literature that Eco includes in his book:
-A list of the residents of Hades from Virgil’s Aeneid, Book VI.
-A list of conditions for manhood from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If.”
-A list of items that Tom obtained from his friends as payment for the privilege of whitewashing his fence, from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
-A list of book categories from the bookstore in Italo Calvino’s novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.
Lists fascinate us because they appeal to our inherent need for organization. A list’s title gives the reader immediate and easily categorized information, such as “The Ten Commandments” or “Thirteen Signs You’re Addicted to Lip Balm.”
Lists are an essential tool that assist writers to shovel up heaping helpings of savory details for the reader to enjoy. Too often writers dwell too much on abstractions and generalities. Lists remind the writer that the reader is hungry for concrete details. Readers can be told things for only so long; they prefer, instead, to be shown things, things that they can see, hear, taste, smell, and feel.
Today’s Challenge: Your Personal Parade of Particulars
What are some titles of lists that you would find interesting to enumerate and catalogue your life experiences? Generating your own lists is a great way to practice generating specific, concrete details in your writing. Generate at least three list titles of your own, or use some of the examples below. Then, based on the three titles, generate three separate lists, each containing at least seven items.
Things I’ve Found
Songs on My iPod
Jobs I’d Hate to Have
Things I Love to Hate
Things I Hope to Do by the Time I’m Fifty
Reasons I Get Up in the Morning
Important Numbers in My Life
Things I Can Rant About?
Things I Can Rave About?
Places I’d Like to Go Before I Die
Nicknames I’ve Had in My Life
Most Memorable People I’ve Met
(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)
Quotation of the Day: How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with . . . . We also have completely practical lists — the shopping list, the will, the menu — that are also cultural achievements in their own right. -Umbeto Eco
1-Eco, Umberto. The Infinity of Lists. New York: Rizzoli, 2009.
2-Beyer, Susanne and Lothar Gorris. We Like Lists Because We Don’t Want to Die. Spiegal.