Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The List

I just bought a new (remaindered) book: Belknap, Robert E. (2004) The List. The Uses and Pleasures of Cataloguing. New Haven: Yale University Press. Chapter 1 is called "The Literary List" which would actually have been a more precise title for the book. Even more precise or more indicative of the contents of the book would have been: "The Literary List in Emerson, Whitman, Melville, and Thoreau" (Chapters 2-5 are about these four authors).

From the Preface: "Literary lists afford us particular attractions and pleasures. the rhythm of the repetition interrupts the forward drive of the text, and for a moment we are invited to dance" (xiii). Hmmm ... I can't dance.

His definition of a list? "... a formally organized block of information that is composed of a set of members" (15). Is this sufficient? I don't think so. How does this definition allow us to distinguish between a list and a paragraph? It doesn't. A paragraph is also a formally organized block of information that is composed of a set of members, be they words, or sentences, or letters. Nor does it allow us to differentiate this genus from some of its species, like the outline or the check list.

Belknap notes later in the first chapter when he quotes another author, a list is "an apt vehicle for enumeration, and its random sequence makes it apt for display of formal order" (34). Except, of course when it is not random (but systematic). Nor do I understand how "random sequence" is particularly apt for "formal order." I think what he means is that sometimes, if used cleverly, a random list may actually suggest formal order.

Lists are very basic ways of ordering things from a certain perspective.[1] So, a shopping list, enumerates things that need to be bought. But the uses are many. Walter Benjamin wrote: "I recently entertained myself by putting together a 'list of my mistakes and failures of the last two years" and the result was the slight comfort that the former were not at all always prerequisite of the latter."

Much better than the general discussion of lists did I like the account of how Emerson, Whitman, Melville, and Thoreau used lists in their works.[2] In any case, I don't think there are literary lists as opposed to utilitarian lists, there are utilitarian, literary (and many other) uses of lists.

1. This is not meant to be a formal and complete definition either. It's just adding a necessary feature. David Weinberger calls a list the "most basic way of ordering ideas" (Weinberger, David (2007) Everything is Miscellaneous. The Power of the New Digital Disorder. New York: Times Books). I think this also falls short of a definition. But Weinberger's discussion of Borges presumed Encyclopedia as a conscious attempt to construct an impossible or self-contradictory list goes toward showing how important "point of view" or "selection" is in lists. We usually make lists for a purpose. Only rarely do we want to make a list of everything. In any case, everything is miscellaneous only when you assume no perspective at all.

2. See also Lists.


Michael Leddy said...

I’d want to distinguish, at least sometimes, between a list and a catalogue. A shopping list, but a library catalogue.

If you don’t already know it, Liza Kirwin’s book Lists, a collection of artists’ lists, is a lot of fun.

MK said...

I fully agree! In fact. I was at some point also going to comment on the use of "cataloguing" in the title.

You were quick. I made some other changes after your comment!

Thank you very much!

MK said...

One other thought. Perhaps it is best to look at a catalogue as another species of the genus list (like outline, check list, etc.).

Michael Leddy said...

Don’t be too impressed by speed — I have your blog in my reader, so I saw the post not long after it appeared.

I think I’d think of a catalogue as a system and a list as something ad hoc, with a more limited purpose.