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Matthew Dessem on the Ancient Art of List Making

Matthew Dessem on the Ancient Art of List Making


Nick Hornby's High Fidelity is a 323-page paean to the addictive power of lists. For Barry, the novel's Falstaff, conversation is enumeration: "If he has seen a good film," Hornby writes, "he will not describe the plot, or how it made him feel, but where it ranks in his best-of-year list, best-of-all-time list, best-of-decade list." For Barry-and possibly for the rest of us-obsessive list-making keeps him young, and makes him feel important. There's something to that, to be sure, but making lists isn't completely adolescent either.High Fidelity-which fittingly graced more than a few best-of-year lists itself-is unwaveringly contemporary, but Barry's impulse to catalogue certainly isn't anything new. Sometime around 140 B.C., Antipater of Sidon wrote that the temple of Artemis at Ephesus outshone the other six wonders of the world; today, people remember him precisely because he took the trouble to name the six less impressive wonders. Draw a straight line through history from Antipater to the present, and you find countless self-made experts doing the same thing, ad nauseam.Take "Pabcool," for instance, an Amazon.com user who recently noted, "omg teh beatles roxxor my soxxors," in a list titled "My Favorite Junk Pt. 1." Humanity probably won't be talking about that list 2,000 years from now, but Pabcool is engaging in the same kind of criticism, a binary thumbs-up/thumbs-down system that's worlds away from what, say, a film critic like Pauline Kael does. While a traditional critic will go to great lengths to explain what's good or bad about something, in list-making, you're either one of the Seven Wonders of the World or you're not.Everyone has opinions, but not all of us create lists titled "Things That Are Good." For one thing, a list of that sort implies a much longer, unwritten list titled "Things That Are Not Good." This second list-and fear of being on it-accounts for most of the literary battles over the Western Canon. Value judgments aside, someone has to sort films, books, albums, news, and so on into two categories. The fact that most of the material out there ends up on the scrap heap is an inevitability. Given the sheer volume of media out there, we can't do all the work ourselves. Think about it: Most people use some sort of automatic filtering on their email systems, whether it's a simple spam filter or a complicated scheme that moves mail from their ex to a special "When Hell Freezes Over" folder. If we can't even handle filtering our personal correspondence by ourselves, what hope do we have of finding things worthy of our attention in other types of media?Traditional critics can't do this work entirely on their own, either. For one thing, they often don't choose their assignments, and they write too frequently. This means that over time, their standards lower toward the median quality of the films they are seeing (or books they are reading). Even Pauline Kael, in the context of a negative review, described 1986's robot-becomes-sentient movie Short Circuit as "smoothly directed." Assuming you're trying to find things that are truly worth knowing about, you need someone using more stringent criteria, more selectively. Someone charged with sorting, preserving, and championing that which is attention-worthy, saving you the trouble of going through the rest. In short, you need a curator.As with so many difficult things in life, it's tempting to turn the job of curating over to a machine, especially since they're so much better at it. Amazon does a decent job of predicting things you'll like, picking through vast stores of data about every purchase anyone has made since the site was founded, looking for correlations. It uses what information theorists call "traffic analysis," a way of looking for patterns without necessarily caring what the data means. In Amazon's case, traffic analysis means the software has noticed that many people who buy The Secret also pick up a copy of You: On a Diet: The Owner's Manual for Waist Management. But its probabilistic system doesn't look at the content of each purchase. That isn't a bad thing, necessarily, but it's unlikely to point you toward anything truly surprising or rare.Pandora.com, which streams music based on artists or bands you like, has a more interesting method. Unlike Amazon, Pandora bases its predictions on analysis of the substance of the music-someone actually listens to the songs and records their characteristics. Because it relies on human intelligence instead of data mining, Pandora often taps into more obscure material. The technology will improve, but the best filters will always involve a person at the controls to list and rank and catalogue things you ought to care about. Machines just aren't good enough at analyzing content.Naturally, there's no shortage of people vying for the role. Traditional critics publish their best-of lists at the end of the year; there's even a website with a list of the top 100 film lists, running the gamut from the National Film Registry to the film critic Leonard Maltin. The book world is similar: The American Library Association maintains a list of book lists. We all know someone who tries to see all the Best Picture nominees before the Oscars. Even blogs, in their traditional form, are essentially lists. Some bloggers even turn the form back on itself, working their way through other people's canons: The New York writer Christopher R. Beha is writing a book about reading the Harvard Classics; a fundraiser for the University of Virginia named Tara Saylor is making every recipe in The Joy of Cooking; I'm watching all the movies in the Criterion Collection. And all of us have blogs.In the end, the question is not whether canons like these are good or bad-constant list-making is the predictable result of a society that nurtures the collection instinct. The question is which one you respect. Finding a curator whose taste and expertise you trust isn't easy, but it's worth it. Even Nick Hornby recognizes the addictive power of list-making. A few years after finishing High Fidelity, he published Songbook. It's a list of his favorite songs. Pabcool would be proud.

Collect them all:

The Harvard ClassicsWhen Charles W. Eliot, the president of Harvard for 40 years (ending in 1909), claimed that anyone could "reach the standing of a cultivated man or woman" through fifteen minutes of daily reading, the publisher P. F. Collier asked the obvious question: "Reading what?" Eliot's answer was the Harvard Classics, a 51-volume set of the greatest works of literature in the Western world. The Criterion CollectionSince 1984, Criterion has been releasing its "continuing series of important classic and contemporary films" on laser disc and DVD. Although copyright restrictions mean some great works are excluded, the attention Criterion lavishes on each release earns it the respect of cinephiles. The Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums of All TimeIt would take three weeks to listen to every album. But since this list comprehensively tracks pop music from Robert Johnson to the White Stripes, that might not be a bad way to spend your time. The Modern Library's 100 Best Novels ListThe Modern Library offers something for both high- and lowbrows with its parallel lists. Seven of the top 10 novels on the poll-driven "Reader's List" are by Ayn Rand or L. Ron Hubbard. The "Board's List," in contrast, is a solid collection of the greatest English literature published since 1900.
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