While wrestling with this post before, my broadband decided to have a bad hair day. (It has since been restored — ditto the laptop.) Anyway, if you got an earlier version of this post, it was because WordPress decided to publish it prematurely. Apos for that, as the young folk say nowadays, or did once.
I have been thinking about lists recently. I haven’t just had bucket lists in mind, as per the previous post, but other kinds too, especially literary ones. I was struck by the 100 greatest novels sort of list. I started looking at 100-greatest lists, as I will refer to them, to see if I’d read what the compilers recommended. Then I started thinking about what was going on with these lists and why they existed. These thoughts have become somewhat protracted. So in trying to stop this feeling to much like a thesis, I have split it into two posts, the first of which follows below. (I give some further examples at the end of the second post — yes, a list of lists).
I did read a somewhat cynical explanation of why listicles, as they are known, have become popular. This is because journalists find them easier to write than articles. Writing an article forces a journalist to think about how to make the final sentence link up with the opening one. Much easier to make a list! However, I think there’s more to it than that. Three reasons in particular come to mind.
The first is a conviction that reading is intrinsically good for you. Of course, just because something is intrinsically good for us doesn’t make it fun. Reading — particularly from a printed page — is the broccoli of leisure activities. Nutritious, for sure, but not something one gets a craving for. No-one has to make a list with things on it like “Have a coffee and some chocolate”.
But it isn’t just reading that’s supposed to be good for you: it’s reading on a printed page. The book is competing for our attention with the convenience of the screen. Sitting on the train, in the doctor’s waiting room, or in the spare half hour while a load of washing finishes its cycle, it is easier to find time for reading a few bits and pieces on the phone or tablet than it is to sit down with a novel. There is some uneasiness about what this extra screen time might be doing to us; there have been a few articles recently about how to read more hard copy books. Want to read more? Choose an extremely long book is an example.
The second reason is a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness about what books people should be reading. People seem to feel that bestsellers and airport books are literary equivalents of junk food. They want to read the good stuff. But how do they know what this is? There are no Choice tests they can read to get onto the best books. People have a lot of demands on their free time; just futzing around on their own could waste what little they have. There seems a real craving for guidance, for someone to tell them what to read, and where to start.
The third reason behind 100-greatest lists is the hardest to pin down. What do people think they’ll get, or gain, from all this reading? There is a vague belief that working your way through a 100-greatest list will make you well read, a member of the cognoscenti. You may not have a degree to say so, but who needs one? You’ll be not only be a better person intrinsically, but a more evolved one as well, sort of like reaching the Scientology state of “Clear”.
The post continues below.