Why Do We Love Lists? Umberto Eco Will Tell You Why

It’s 2012 list time here at CaPC. We’ve created lists of our favorite movies, games, music, graphic novels, and television shows from the past year. Why do we do this?

Umberto Eco says it’s an act that’s part culture-making, part death-defying. His analysis was given in an interview with Der Spiegel which was then covered by Rebecca Rosen at The Atlantic:

“The list doesn’t destroy culture; it creates it. Wherever you look in cultural history, you will find lists. In fact, there is a dizzying array: lists of saints, armies and medicinal plants, or of treasures and book titles. Think of the nature collections of the 16th century. My novels, by the way, are full of lists. . . .

“We have always been fascinated by infinite space, by the endless stars and by galaxies upon galaxies. How does a person feel when looking at the sky? He thinks that he doesn’t have enough tongues to describe what he sees. Nevertheless, people have never stopping describing the sky, simply listing what they see. . . .

“We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That’s why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It’s a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don’t want to die.”

Interesting, yes? Something so very common as a list is actually a framework for our society and a construct by which we deal with our mortality. Even in our personal lives, we live by lists every day: what to do, what to buy, what to say.

We make lists so we don’t forget what’s important.

The same could be said about our lists here at CaPC—we don’t want what’s been important in culture to be forgotten or missed. We list what’s important in culture, documenting it again, thereby increasing its weight.

Eco’s premise is that we make lists about things that are infinite, and therefore, living by lists makes us feel infinite too. In some ways, documenting beauty and fascinations about creation (both the man-made in culture and the God-made in nature) is a way we enter into the infinite, for both culture and nature weave throughout history, stretching back before we entered the timeline and certain to continue on past our exit. List making gives us a mark on the timeline, a spot to declare what’s worthy of time and attention—not only the items on the list but also the one who crafted it.

About Erin Straza

Erin Straza (Associate Editor) is a freelance writer, editor, and marketing communications consultant, helping organizations tell their stories in authentic and compelling ways. After a stint in corporate marketing while earning her MBA, Erin taught marketing communications at Illinois Wesleyan and Illinois State. She is crafting her first book, writing from the Illinois flatlands where she lives with her husband, Mike. Find more from Erin at her blog Filling My Patch of Sky and on Twitter @ErinStraza.
E-mail: erin [at] FillingMyPatchOfSky [dot] com
Blog: Filling My Patch of Sky
Twitter: @ErinStraza

  • Witness

    Hacemos listas porque necesitamos dar valor al tiempo. Tenemos que asegurar que nuestra dedicación a un determinado producto cultural ha merecido haber dejado pasar unos instantes dedicados a una contemplación del producto creado por otra circunstancia vital ajena a nuestra propia circunstancia. Tenemos que colocar sobre un pedestal los momentos en que no amamos a la mujer amada, en que no pensamos en una nueva forma de pensar, en que no habitamos el mundo como nadie antes lo había habitado.