The Best Lists of 2016

A. W. Strouse celebrates the crafting of lists -- the frivolous, the sinister, the objectionable, the inspirational -- in both literature and life.

January 3, 2017
 
 
iStock/FrankRamspott

New Year’s Day is my favorite holiday for three reasons:

  1. serving my traditional feast of sauerkraut to friends
  2. reciting the holiday’s many poems on Christ’s circumcision
  3. reading lists!

All year long, I eagerly await the year-end lists of superlatives. And, throughout December, I devote whole days to crafting my list of New Year’s resolutions.

Even more than the “naughty or nice” lists of Christmas, New Year’s Day, for me, wins the prize as Holiday with the Most Lists.

This year, I nominate the Harvard University soccer team’s “scouting report” for Most Tasteless List of 2016. As a gay poet, I viewed this particular list with an outsider’s rubbernecked inquisitiveness. I saw the report as part of a degenerate literary tradition of cataloging, indexing and registering.

Likewise, back in 2012, when Mitt Romney blundered by bragging about his “binders full of women,” I recalled that many poets had produced such binders.

Among them: the late-medieval French writer Christine de Pizan, author of The Book of the City of Ladies (an archive of stories about exemplary women like the Amazons, Sappho, Dido, the Virgin Mary, etc.). De Pizan’s proto-feminist project took a cue from the 14th-century Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio, whose On Famous Women had sought to recuperate the reputation of women. And Chaucer, with The Legend of Good Women, parodied the whole genre of medieval lady lists.

To this list of binders, I might add Charles Bukowski’s sex novel, Women. And I cross-reference Women with books that painstakingly index gambling debts, hangovers and menial jobs.

Those writers all felt the influence of one of the greatest list makers: Dante. I discern in the author of The Divine Comedy the spirit of someone possessed by a scholastic frenzy for compartmentalizing, codifying and classifying. Dante’s masterpiece is like a neatly arranged filing cabinet (three drawers, nine folders, with each folder listing afterlife denizens).

Dante offers a stunning rebuke to all those who slander bureaucracy as soulless. His poetry illustrates how the apparent tedium of list making can express the raging passions of heaven or hell, or someplace in between.

Each time I must deal with a bureaucratic snafu, I pray to Dante -- patron saint of bureaucratic beauty.

Sometimes collecting a list -- or recollecting one -- can reaffirm our humanity. Dante’s lists helped to sustain Primo Levi. In Survival in Auschwitz, when Levi and a fellow prisoner recite from the Inferno, the poem provides them with a rare moment of normalcy.

Dante, by leading readers through intricate lists and toward his beloved Beatrice, suggests that the practice of list making, in and of itself, bears upon the great philosophical questions (like death and sex and power).

List making is an anthropological universal, and the desire to make lists speaks to a fundamental human need. Lists, by embodying a rational order, appeal to our nature as embodied, rational creatures (creatures who are all too prone to misusing our highest faculties, like when we make distasteful lists).

Note that some lists are frivolous. In Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, T. S. Eliot calls the roll of various cutie-pie felines.

But other lists are foundational. Perhaps American poetry begins with Leaves of Grass, an all-consuming compendium.

Emily Dickinson, too, was “inebriate” of lists, as she would have put it. Narrating her famous postmortem carriage ride, Dickinson lists the earthly phenomena that she leaves behind her:

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess -- in the Ring --
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain --
We passed the Setting Sun --

Some other examples to add to this list of important poetic lists:

  • Paradise Lost flips through Milton’s rolodex of demons, devils and demigods.
  • The Iliad recites a who’s who of heroic warriors.
  • The Hebrew Bible is a profound series of lists (e.g., of the days of creation; of various domestic dysfunctions; of plagues and sins; of wars and kings and songs and laws).

Supposedly, W. H. Auden held that all poetry begins from a love of making lists.

But something sinister lurks beneath the will to compile lists. As Hannah Arendt suggested in her discussion of totalitarianism, the list maker’s art -- though apparently banal -- can grease the wheels of bloody regimes.

A list of objectionable lists might include: slave galley manifests, Nixon’s enemies list, McCarthy’s alleged list of State Department Communists and the blacklist, as well as the works of the Marquis de Sade. De Sade critiqued the Enlightenment with long, detailed lists of sexual tortures. His lists exposed the wicked potential of reason’s will to define and enumerate. Indeed, perhaps such lists impugn the form of the list itself.

In the case of the “scouting report,” this list might attest to the barbarism latent in male bonding. Perhaps this list reflects an innate, masculine impulse to dominate. Boys, after all, often obsess about baseball card collections and merit badges. And men often obsess about tallies of conquests, stock reports and sports statistics.

Someone familiar with Michel Foucault might develop an argument about how -- by translating the oral discourse of “locker-room talk” into the textual discourse of a written list -- the report actually renders male sexual aggression more susceptible to modern regimes of discipline.

But I have no expertise in such matters, and I certainly have no moral credibility. After all, a list of my privileges would have to include my gender, and a list of my sins would have to count up -- along with my prurience -- many instances of pride, avarice, greed and lechery.

But list making is my favorite vice. I seize upon any opportunity to compose lists. I love to craft to-do lists, grocery lists and Christmas present lists. I enjoy composing lesson plans, syllabi and bibliographies. I once wrote an erotic memoir, in which successive chapters chronicle each of my African-American ex-boyfriends (to be released this February as an ebook for Black History Month). And my life’s work is an ongoing project called The Book-Title List Book, in which I record titles for books that I have titled but will decline to write.

Along with these lists, I’m enchanted by list-like practices (such as exercise routines, the Rosary and grading papers). Procrastinating, I spend afternoons reading Wikipedia’s “List of lists of lists.”

I identify, therefore, with my fellow list makers. Just last semester, Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences informed me by email that they had not included my name on their short list of candidates for an open professorship. More than feeling slighted, I swooned with enthusiasm for the fact of the list itself.

And I wondered about the other lists that Harvard might have consulted while making the decision to suspend its soccer team (for example, alumni donor lists).

Even writing this now, I prefer list making to analysis and argument. Then again, list making actually implies analysis. To make a list is to impose hierarchy, organization, order.

I have fallen captive to the spell of the list. Therefore, as I compose my list of New Year’s resolutions, I vow that this year, 2017, will be the year that I fully embrace my love of the list.

Bio

A. W. Strouse is a poet who teaches medieval literature at the City University of New York.

Read more by

Back to Top