10 Ways to Rethink Your Lists

The author of Schott’s Original Miscellany, a noted compendium of lists, shows you how.

Photo by Kate Sears

Lists seem to be more central to our lives than ever before―from our own obsessive to-do lists to the structure of the human genome or Google’s cataloging of the World Wide Web. But the urge to collect and classify is hardly new, nor is it always magnanimous. For every Ben Franklin listing his rules of civilized human conduct, there is a Joseph McCarthy listing his enemies of the state.

Here then are some of the lessons from lists past that I think about when assembling my own and examining those of others.

1. Ask for help. Since list writing is often undertaken in an overwhelmed state, why do it alone? In 1964 Deborah, duchess of Devonshire, wrote to her friend Patrick Leigh Fermor to ask for his assistance in compiling a rather unusual list: whimsical titles for a set of fake book spines that would cover a secret library door in Chatsworth, the duchess’s stately home. Fermor obliged with a list that included Military Dilemmas, by Major Crisis; Consenting Adults, by Able N. Willing; and In the Soup, by A. Crouton. If a problem shared is a problem halved, a list collaborated on is a list enhanced.

2. Fear not the short list. It is notable that Paul Simon’s 1975 classic “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” actually lists only five methods of abandonment. Although Simon is blatantly guilty of fraudulent misrepresentation, there’s no doubt the song would have been unbearably dull had he enumerated the other 45 techniques for ditching a paramour.

3. Go on, be vengeful. It’s gratifying to vent your spleen with a list of bilious retribution. In the unlikely event you’re stuck for inspiration, turn to Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1885 comic opera The Mikado, in which Ko-Ko has “a little list of society offenders who never would be missed,” including “the idiot who praises with enthusiastic tone, all centuries but this, and every country but his own.”

4. Proceed with caution. In his Jeeves and Wooster novels, P. G. Wodehouse introduced the Junior Ganymede Club, a secret guild of valets and butlers. The club’s Rule 11 required its members to keep lists of (often compromising) information about their employers―a source of endless confusion and mayhem. The modern-day moral? Be sure to erase perilous lists, like those of last-made cell-phone calls, most-recently-visited websites, and whatever you wrote after reading No. 3.