A recent exhibit at the Louvre was titled “The Vertigo of Lists.” In explaining his chosen theme, guest curator Umberto Eco said that lists help human beings to “make infinity comprehensible . . . to create order.” Ultimately, Eco says, “We like lists because we don’t want to die” . . .

So what does it say about me that my desk is littered with lists? Things to do. Stuff to buy. Items to pack (this is actually six separate categorized sub-lists). Friends to see before I go. People to contact while I’m on the road. Speaking engagements scheduled and yet-to-be scheduled (this one’s so detailed, I had to put it in a spreadsheet!) Maintenance and preparation work to do on the camper van. And those are just the lists for my cross-country trip.

I also have to-do lists for each of the projects I’m working on for various clients, lists of stuff that needs to be done around the house, recipes I want to try, books I want to read, movies I want to see, websites I want to check out, places I’d like to travel. The lists go on. Too many lists, too little time. Sometimes, it’s overwhelming.

I think Eco hit on the real reason for my list-obsession. Lists are a way of making at least some mild semblance of order out of the chaos of life. They bring focus amid life’s distractions. They help to make sure stuff gets done. And, of course, there’s the little thrill of satisfaction that comes with neatly checking off each item. (confession: sometimes I add to my lists tasks I’ve already completed, just for the satisfaction of checking them off)

When our kids were little, lists helped to ward off conflict, especially at the grocery store. When Eric or Hannah asked the inevitable, “Can we get…” questions, I’d glance at my grocery list, then reply, “Nope. Sorry. It’s not on the list.” I explained that one should never go to a store without a list, to avoid impulse purchases and prevent extra return trips for stuff you forgot. They quickly learned to make their buying requests before we ever left the house. Apparently my list-making ways rubbed off on both of them.

Hannah came to me two days before she had to return to college with a neatly printed list of snacks, drinks and toiletries she needed for her dorm room.

A few nights ago, Bruce and I watched a movie together. Though we rarely watch the previews, we sat through them this time. The three movies being previewed looked great. I knew we’d never remember the titles, so I grabbed a scrap of paper that was lying next to the sofa and wrote them down. (“Sunshine Cleaning”, “Henry Poole is Here” and “The Visitor,” in case anyone’s interested)

Then, curious, I turned the paper over to see what I’d scribbled on. It was a list, in my son’s handwriting, of projects he’d had to complete for his employer over Christmas break. Every item was neatly checked off. I couldn’t help smiling.

One of my favorite family rituals is the set of lists we make every New Year’s Day, of the things that made us sad, happy and proud in the previous year, and what we look forward to and hope to accomplish in the year ahead. We’ve been doing this for over a decade now and those lists encapsulate the joys, heartbreaks, struggles and achievements the four of us have experienced together in a way nothing else ever could.

What can I say? Listmaking is in my DNA. When I was a little girl, my mother was constantly making lists. They were everywhere: secured to the fridge with plastic flower magnets, on top of the back issues of “Good Housekeeping” stacked next to the sofa, under the jar of Ponds cold cream on her nightstand, sticking up out of the pages of the latest mystery novel she was reading, in the side pocket of her purse, with her lipstick and cigarettes.

My grandmother (Mom’s mother) was a big believer in lists, too. She always had a steno pad and pen by her side, with page after page of lists (hers were usually numbered). She wouldn’t have dreamed of going to the grocery store, the pharmacy, the butcher shop, the liquor store or the five-and-dime without one. “A list can be a lifesaver,” Grandma used to say.

When Mom and I took care of Grandma in her home for ten months as she battled several forms of cancer, the three of us were the List-Making Musketeers. We had lists of new treatments to research, probing questions to ask the doctors, cancer-fighting foods to try. Then it was lists of ointments that might soothe radiation burns, anti-nausea remedies, the long list of meds and when to give them, and things to ask the hospice nurses. Finally, it was lists of people Mom and I needed to call and things we needed to take care of when the time came. In the end, our lists couldn’t save Grandma. But I’m convinced that, in some small way, they saved Mom and me.

The “Vertigo of Lists” exhibit at the Louvre revealed listmaking as an ancient practice. The exhibit featured lists of the literary texts held in a Sumerian library in the second millennium BC, and a list of war victories and treasures brought back to the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III (1479-1426 BC) by his soldiers.

“The list is the origin of culture,” Eco said. “It’s part of the history of art and literature.”

Even the word “list” has a rich history.

In ancient times, it meant “to listen.”

A “list” was also an enclosed field of combat in medieval jousting tournaments.

The British phrase “To enter the lists” means to issue or accept a challenge, or to engage in a contest, conflict or controversy.

Being “on the list” can be a wonderful thing, as long as it’s an A-list, dean’s list, mailing list, reading list or short-list. But it stinks to be on a B-list, critical list, hit list or waiting list.

My husband teases me about my never-ending lists. He even caught me making a list of ideas for this blog entry about lists. (he got a really big kick out of that one!) Despite the teasing, I don’t envision myself ever giving up my list-making. The very idea makes me feel, well, listless. And I feel vindicated by the fact that a book about the importance of checklists has even made it onto the New York Times Bestseller List (which is, itself, obviously a LIST!) The book is The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, by Atul Gawande.

Umberto Eco’s analysis that we like lists because we don’t want to die may explain the appeal of bucket lists. I have a bucket list of sorts, but I keep it in my head. I don’t want to tempt fate by writing it down.

I do have a written list I made shortly before I graduated from high school of the many things I wanted to do in the life that spread out before me, infinite with possibilities. It’s been over thirty years since I started that list, and I’m still working on it, both adding new things and checking others off. It’s the only list I hope never to complete.


20 days until departure for the cross-country trip!


What was the most useful or important list you’ve ever made? What’s one list you want to make or feel you should make?

Posted by Melanie Tagged as: grace goes to prison book tour

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