07/01/2013 01:18 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2013

Life, Enumerated


Because I'm too anxious to do the proper research, and have gone on record as a complete spazz with numbers, I'm just gonna take a wild guess: my guess is that roughly 30 percent of the textual information we consume today, regardless of the medium, is presented in the form of lists. Think about it, or better yet take quick tour around the HuffPost right now. Like I am. Here I go, to the Weddings section. And in five minutes I find:

  • 10 Major Wedding Planning Myths Debunked
  • 4 Signs You Have Cold Feet (And How To Cope)
  • 5 Reasons I Can't Wait To Be A Husband
  • 14 Things Millennials Need To Know Before Marrying
  • The #1 Thing Everyone Wants In Bed (Does a list of 1 count?)
  • 9 Healthy Ways To Relax During Wedding Planning
  • 5 Tips for a Successful Proposal

Even two of my own HuffPost blogs are presented in the enumerated form:

  • 8 Reasons to Spend This June in 19th Century Russia
  • 8 Surefire Cures for the Empty Nester Blues

Of course, HuffPost is not alone when it comes to lists, and it's no accident that bloggers, journalists and writers of all sorts are making lists. Any Social Media Exposition 101 professor will tell you that readers love their lists, from those that describe linear processes (ie: How to Bring Her to a Plaster-Cracking Climax in 5 Easy Steps), a collection of maxims intended to guide you through a life of conflict-free coexistence with your fellow creatures (ie: 10 Ways to Avoid Getting Punched in the Face), or the classic collection of fateful warning signs predicting your demise ( ie: 7 Ways to Tell if Leprosy is in Your Future).

"Listing" is no cultural quirk or stylish communications trend. From very near the beginning of recorded history, lists have been the primary organizing principle for all existence. Of course it started with "How to Build the World in Six Days and Still Have Time for a Beer on the Seventh". But even with such a disciplined approach it didn't take long for humankind to degenerate into a boozing, brawling, buttheaded bunch of buffoons bent on brutish behavior and bad alliteration. Then along came a guy named Moe who, after a night of devilish debauchery with satyrs, demons, pole dancers and cabana boys, none of whom spoke the same language, had decided to clear his head by going for a hike on a hill. When he got to the public picnic grounds at the top, there was God, sitting at a picnic table with a couple of stone tablets in front of him. "Hey Moe!" he shouted "I got something for ya." The Big Daddy. The Top Ten of the Top Ten. A Cecil B. DeMille film! The mother of all lists!

Though list making got off to a rather auspicious start with The Ten Commandments, another possible reason for the continued popularity of lists through time is that they are supposedly much easier to remember and thus more effective at whatever they're attempting to communicate. Only problem is that it's clear that memorability seems NOT to be the case when dealing with complex value judgements like killing, stealing, lying, cheating on your betrothed, worshiping Jesus bobblehead dolls on the dashboard, or other items like those in The Ten Commandments. Or at least the evidence would suggest such is the case. Maybe God should have tried another approach to get His rules across; an interactive role-play game, perhaps.

Just to make more stuff up (because I can't point to any facts), I have a feeling that David Letterman's famous Top Ten lists, which were such a critical component of the overall Late Show branding back when it was so wildly popular with the younger boomers and Saturday Night Live refugees, have played a key role in perpetuating list making. Of course the whole idea with Letterman was to poke fun at list making and parody the tendency of Americans in particular to "rate" everything. With the exception of the Ten Biggies, lists and ratings ARE fun -- they almost always deal with inconsequential subject matter (I can't recall, but did I see a "Top Ten Reasons Muslims Prefer Martyrdom to Natural Death" list out there the other day?) and if the reader remembers one or two items that hold some value for them from a list that they might have otherwise forgotten, well -- hooray for lists!

Also, for the writer, simply publishing a list is almost like short-circuiting an essay, leaving out whatever rhetorical connective tissue might be required to build a fully realized piece. But so what? If the core messages are more memorable in list format, I say list away -- this isn't Freshman Exposition. I can see how a composition professor, or any academic concerned with written expression, might look askance at this deluge of lists and accuse the blogosphere of gimmickry. Some may also believe that list-making is pandering to a lazy readership, but again I say "so what"? If a gimmick gets someone to read a post, and enumerating the points is, in the writer's estimation, the clearest way to get over, and the reader gleans some value from the experience, then WTF?

Besides, where would we be without lists if not...listless?

(You can just pretend I didn't say that. It wasn't me, honestly. My dog made me say it.)