Of course I’m weary of listicles. I suspect that even those who are still in thrall to their charms are, by now, finding all that cheap wisdom and compulsory cleverness at least a little tiresome. All the “Things I Wish I’d Knowns,” “How to Figure Outs,” and “What to do Whens” — a seemingly endless profusion of precisely enumerated tips, tricks, and secrets flowing out of the internet’s every orifice.
But for all the harm such lists may well have done to our attention spans, collective intelligence, and critical facilities, the most heinous crime they’ve committed is against the list itself. During the last decade, a noble form has been sullied and debased, brought so low by the desire for web traffic and ad sales that we’ve forgotten what an indispensable and delightful component of language (and life) it can be.
After all, what makes lists so insidious—and so easily co-optable as click-bait—is that they are innately and deeply pleasurable things. We are creatures with a strong inclination toward categorization and differentiation, a fondness for planning and precision—traits that are fully realized in the list, a wondrously practical, simply-designed device for orchestrating everything from a wedding to a war.
They are a succinct distillation of self, a snapshot of mental state. Hence the obsession with Joan Didion’s circa 1979 packing list—“Two skirts, two jerseys or leotards … cigarettes, bourbon … mohair throw, typewriter.” Or the poignancy of Jay Gatsby’s boyhood self-improvement schedule: “Rise from bed, dumbbell exercise and wall-scaling, study electricity, etc. …”
And while a list is most often a personal document, a paragon of concision, it can also be a literary device that carries with it the power, exuberance, and gravitas that accrues from plenty. “The list is the fundamental rhetorical form for creating a sense of abundance, overflow, excess,” William Gass, professed lover of “sheer enumerations,” once asserted in an ode to the list.
It has been beloved by David Foster Wallace, Lydia Davis, Tim O’Brien and Robert Caro, who in a recent interview credited the lists of Homer with inspiring his introduction to The Power Broker—which is, in a way, a list as poetry: “He built the Major Deegan Expressway, the Van Wyck Expressway, the Sheridan Expressway, and the Bruckner Expressway. He built the Gowanus Expressway, the Prospect Expressway, the Whitestone Expressway, the Clearview Expressway, and the Throgs Neck Expressway. He built the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Nassau Expressway, the Staten Island Expressway and the Long Island Expressway. He built the Harlem River Drive and the West Side Highway.”
The list is a marvel—the listicle, a perversion. And it is not only the low-brow ones that offend: the slightly haughtier variety turned out by the more staid and self-respecting publications is even more wearying. Think of all those pedantic current events primers, (e.g., “the 6, 7, or 8 Things You Should Know About the Iran Deal”) or else the ceaseless churn of tallies on the best, the richest, the most powerful.
And while it makes a certain amount of sense to appropriate the most purposeful and pleasurable of devices in the service of journalism’s most pressing problem—figuring out how to make money in the internet era—as a life-long lover of lists, it hurts to see them so ill-used. A listicle is plodding, whether it pretends to levity or portentousness. A true list doesn’t pretend to anything, which is what makes it such a joy. It has no advice to dispense, no airs to put on, no advertisements to sell or authority to bolster, which can be said of few enough things in this world.