Listing Lists

What’s the deal with lists? As someone who’s never been particularly drawn to list-making as a form of organization or maintaining sanity and as a victim of severe indecisiveness, I’ve never seen the appeal. I understand their value in organization, especially when one is faced with a large amount of requests, jobs, chores, and assignments. But why does everything need to be sorted into a list of some sort? From books to movies to plays to music to cities: anything and everything you can think of has, at some point, been categorized and placed into a numbered slot. The internet is filled with these lists of the “Top Ten Best *blank*” and “Top Ten Worst *blank*” and “Top 50 Most *blank*.”

Who decides these superlatives? In some cases, the public does; the popular internet site BuzzFeed consists of thousands of lists created by users. In others, a panel of well-read intellectuals in that particular field notate the rank of whatever it is they’re sorting. Publisher’s Weekly, for example, releases lists of their top picks for books, which are decided by some unknown panel of experts. There are no rules surrounding who can and cannot formulate a list. Some will be taken more seriously than others, of course, but the ability to list is not limited to only those who are the most immersed and knowledgeable in the field.

But the very foundation of list-making is subjectivity. They are meant for you to rank what you believe is the most important. They’re personal, individual, a way of sorting one’s own taste or priorities. It seems peculiar that we would present these lists in public forums as if they are the be-all and end-all to whatever subject is up for consideration. Comparing lists, now that’s different: comparing your list with someone else’s creates conversation. Are your tastes similar or different?  Why do you think The Phantom Menace is the worst Star Wars movie ever made? We can discuss, we can argue, we can gush over similar top choices. And, in the end, we will probably agree to disagree on particular selections. But when a list is brought into the light and is presented as THE Top 50 Books for Children of 2013, it cuts off the ability to converse. It removes to subjective nature of list-making and forces it into an ill-fitting objective frame. Listing is no longer personal.

Instead, it becomes judgmental. Listing is transformed into a way of forming a hierarchy of objects and people. By creating universal lists of “must-read books”, it implies that everyone should read these books, enjoy them, and those who don’t are outcasts. It removes the choice we should have in determining our own lists of the top books or top movies. Look at, say, the lists of classics taught in secondary schools. Books are selected from a set list of novels determined to be “the best”. And if a student doesn’t like, say, Moby Dick (which is probably not that uncommon of a book to loath as a teenager), then there must be something wrong with them and their inability to appreciate great literature. We judge others for not conforming to this “standard” list of top however-many whatevers. We critique them. And it’s no longer a critique just for the sake of discussion or friendly banter, but it is criticism that brings into question their intellect.

Lists are meant to be personal and subjective, and this culture of creating master lists—made by professionals of the field—is killing the nature of list-making. That sounds incredibly harsh, but keep that in mind next time you judge someone because they don’t enjoy one of those top ten movies or books. Are you judging them because their tastes are different than yours, or are you judging them because they fail to conform to the created standard of what’s good or bad?

–Sarah Holland


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