Monday, July 7, 2008

In Praise of Lists

My lifelong passion is lists. As a child reader, I found great satisfaction in ordering and categorizing. When I got my first transistor radio (a Christmas present, 1973) I spent the rest of the holiday vacation with the radio in my lap, listing the top 100 pop songs of the year on several sheets of colored construction paper. "And coming in at #14 it's Delta Dawn by Helen Reddy."
I loved the Guinness Book of World Records. I loved the encyclopedia. I loved the Thesaurus. Oh, how I loved (and still ove) the dictionary! I loved catalogs. A back-to-school ritual was the reverent perusal of the giant Sears catalog, agonizing over my choice for my "nice outfit" for the year. My best friend and I spent an entire year creating a collection of word search puzzles with a nature theme; the best part of the project was not the laborious typing (with carbon paper) of the puzzles, but the creation of the lists. "Things That Live Under a Log," was a good one (perhaps the only word search puzzle to include slime mold.) "Water Birds" was another. Our categorization and compartmentalization of nature became ever more specialized the longer we worked on the project.
I don't think it takes a degree in psychology to figure out that my urge to list was a way of managing the great flood of information that washes over us every day. Sorting, ordering, and naming are forms of control or stimulus management. After all, what was Adam's task in the Garden of Eden but to name the animals?
What lists also do is show the tremendous, dazzling variety and abundance of the world. Look how many things live under a log! Look how many water birds there are! In my nonfiction you will often find lists; I like to throw them in as Baroque flourishes. Look how many different kinds of ice there are! Look how many different things a traveling photographer needed.
Lists also reveal something of the list-maker. Which characteristics do you choose to highlight with your list? Color? Habitat? Size? Place of origin? Function? Oh, the many ways you can categorize any given bunch of stuff! Oh, the subtle ways you can influence understanding depending on the list, oh the insights you can nurture, depending on the list. Is it a ranked list? If so, how do you decide how to order? How many items should be on the list? My, my, my, what possibilities!
So here's to interesting information in its most basic form. Maybe my next book will just be a list. Yes. I like that idea.


Gretchen Woelfle said...

Isn't it funny how our own fancies slither into our writing? I love to sing and, somehow, songs pop up in nearly all my stories and books, including The Wind at Work, INK's featured book today. However I've never written a book about singing. Hmmm.

Anna M. Lewis said...

I love lists, too!
Lists are my big brainstorming tool. The example I love to tell kids is how one of my toys was born. I was asked to create a new plush toy. Whoa, where to begin? I listed all the possible characters and all the materials they could be made from. Voila! Warm-up Bears made from Sweatshirt material.