The topicality of the list; How these records and tabulations are the 'origins of culture'
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 1 December 2009)

Umberto Eco, perhaps the most famous professor in Europe, a brilliant critic and a talented novelist, recently redefined himself once more, this time as a connoisseur of lists and an advocate of their place in history. Working in Paris as a guest curator at the Louvre over the last two years, he's studied lists of all kinds, from restaurant menus to museum catalogues to dictionaries to the 300 verses of The Iliad in which Homer details the generals and ships that go off to fight Troy.

Eco has given us a few hints of this in the past. In The Name of the Rose, his renowned murder mystery set in an Italian monastery in the year 1327, a character at one point declares, "There is nothing more wonderful than a list."

"The list is the origin of culture," Eco recently announced. "It's part of the history of art and literature. It has an irresistible magic. How does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists."

At the Louvre, his research has led to several exhibits, including one named Mille e Tre (One thousand and three), after the number of Don Giovanni's Spanish lovers, as disclosed by the servant Leporello in Mozart's opera. Eco has surveyed lists buried in tombs, naming gods or ancestors, commemorating athletes or publicizing the spoils of war. In the Louvre collections, he found a clay tablet listing texts held at the start of the second millennium BC in a library in ancient Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq. He's collected his thoughts on this obsession in a book, The Infinity of Lists: An Illustrated Essay (Rizzoli).

Reading his arguments sent me off in search of my own favourite lists. I love a list that comes as a surprise, in a context where it doesn't obviously fit, like a novel or a Broadway musical. Lists should be memorable, if possible eccentric.

W.H. Auden, whose own name appears first on my list of 20th-century poets, loved lists and celebrated A Dictionary of Angels: Including the Fallen Angels, by Gustav Davidson (1895- 1971), an inventory of archangels, cherubs, seraphim, etc. Davidson reported that 14th-century cabbalists believed there were 301,655,722 angels, many with responsibilities and names, including "Wild beasts: Thegri. Tame beasts: Behemiel. Birds: Arael. Fish: Gagiel. Wild fowl: Trgiaob. Water insects: Shakziel."

Auden's own lists included the names of veins in the lead mines of Derbyshire, U.K. (they included Friarfold Hush and Horse-buttock). In his book of odd facts, A Certain World, he listed names for the genitals, male (including Bald-headed Hermit and Giggle-Stick) and female (including Grotto and Garden Gate).

Eco notices that James Joyce used lists to illuminate character; in Ulysses he opened drawers in Leopold Bloom's house and listed the contents, from souvenirs of his mother to French postcards. I love the passage in Franny and Zooey where J.D. Salinger lists the contents of the bathroom cabinet of the Glass family of New York. He also defined the character of Franny and Zooey's mother by having her wear an ancient Japanese kimono, with two oversized pockets added at the hips, containing: "cigarettes, several match folders, a screwdriver, a claw-end hammer, a Boy Scout knife that had once belonged to one of her sons, and an enamel faucet handle or two, plus an assortment of screws, nails, hinges and ball-bearing casters -- all of which tended to make Mrs. Glass chink faintly as she moved about in her large apartment."

Cole Porter, greatest of the songwriting list-makers, in my view reached his peak with You're The Top, written for two lovers competing in their praise for each other in his 1934 show, Anything Goes. "You're the top! You're the Coliseum. You're the top! You're the Louvre Museum. You're a melody from a symphony by Strauss. You're a Bendel bonnet, a Shakespeare sonnet, you're Mickey Mouse." When the original words are used, it becomes a game requiring that the listener identify references now 75 years old. In 1934, Cellophane, Arrow shirts and Ovaltine were new enough to be mentioned, along with Lady Astor and the Boulder Dam.

Viscountess Astor (1879-1964), the American who became the first woman elected to Parliament in Britain, was famous for remarks such as "I married beneath me. All women do."

At one point, Porter rhymes "a Nathan panning" with "Bishop Manning."

That would be a panning by George Jean Nathan, the eminent drama critic, but who was Manning? He was the elegant William Thomas Manning, Episcopal bishop of New York who, when asked whether salvation could be found outside the Episcopal Church, replied, "Perhaps so, but no gentleman would care to avail himself of it."

The word "begat" evokes, for all Bible readers, the holy lists prepared by Bible-redactors trying to pin down the heredity of characters in the Bible through a tireless listing of generations. Few of the names may be recognizable but they have a hypnotic charm, as in Matthew 1:1: "And Solomon begat Roboam; and Roboam begat Abia; and Abia begat Asa. And Asa begat Josaphat; and Josaphat begat ..."

Roger Angell, in his memoir, Let Me Finish, lists key volumes in the collection of about 100 books kept in a special bookcase in the apartment of the late Gardner Botsford, a New Yorker editor. They were never to be opened. "They are not for reading," Botsford said. They were to be contemplated in wonder over the fact that they existed, since each appeared to be published for a readership of no more than three. They included Pray Your Weight Away, Music in Geriatric Care, Toilet Training in Less Than a Day, All About Guppies and -- Angell saved this one for last -- Knitting with Dog Hair. Like many of the best lists, Gardner's Library depended for its charm on the infinite pointlessness of its content.

The World Wide Web, itself now Mother of all compilations, loves lists. A favourite of mine, the list of phobias at, offers 540 entries. It begins with ablutophobia (fear of washing) and acarophobia (fear of itching). At the end, just before the banal conclusion of zoophobia (fear of animals), it delivers a lulu of an aversion, zemmiphobia (fear of the great mole rat). Don't ask the list's creator about curing a phobia: "My interest is in the names only." There speaks a list lover in the purest sense.

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