Sheila Liming’s List of Writers Who Excel at Lists

To list is to write, but there is more to writing than the mere act of listing. Bad writing can, at times, feel like a list, as when a writer delivers a serialized array of plot points, a roster of charmless characters, or else overindulges in exposition. But good writing can, and very often does, invoke the list as form or as motif. There is, after all, a lot to love about a list: it’s clean and efficient; it’s equally at home in mundane settings (grocery shopping trips) as in significant occasions (lists of prize winners); and a list can have many moods, appearing aspirational but also tenderly memorial.

Take, for instance, the writer Lucia Berlin’s list of failed residences in her memoir Welcome Home, written in the 1980s and published only recently, in 2018. Berlin’s list starts out plainly enough with entries like “Deer Lodge, Montana—No heat, just the oven. Earthquake.” It develops in both irony and intensity, though, arriving at entrees like “Edith Street, Albuquerque, New Mexico—Hard water, floor caved in, well went dry. All the neighboring ducks came to our swimming pool,” and the more sharply poignant “Griegos Road, Albuquerque, New Mexico—I burned it down.” Eventually, Berlin’s list devolves into a list of evictions and accounts of homelessness, stirring outright tragedy into the mix. The neatly formatted entries mark moments in time, but great suffering lurks behind each, remaining largely untold. The list brackets and outlines the story, but it is not the story itself.

In a recent review of volume six of Karl Ove Knausgård’s epic My Struggle, which was published for the first time in English in 2018, critic Frederic Jameson labels Knausgård’s style “itemisation.” Jameson explains that “[w]e have, in postmodernity, … given up the analysis of [daily life] in terms of the commodity form, in a situation in which everything by now is a commodity. All that is left is to itemise [commodities], to list the items that come by.” As Jameson sees it, postmodern fiction’s reliance on itemization as a method signals a kind of stylistic surrender. But I love a good list, and I love a writer who is willing to put the list to work for them in their fiction, essays, or poetry. Good lists are all about prioritization and curation (arguably the opposite of what Knausgård attempts in his My Struggle books), much like good writing.

That’s why I’ve chosen to focus, in this inaugural installment of The Ramblist, on a list of writers who excel at the art of listing and list-making. It’s an eclectic mix that spans a little more than a century of writing but which, when taken together, reveals the power of both understatement and of subtle acts of collection and curation.

Lisa Moore, Open: Stories (2002)

I’ll start here, with the author who taught me to love and to notice lists. This engrossing and voluptuous collection of stories from the Canadian writer Lisa Moore is, I suspect, not well-read or well-remembered today, but my own memories of it remain startlingly dewy and fresh. Perhaps that’s because, when I first read it during the summer of 2005, I exclusively did so in the morning. I was working as a full-time nanny that summer for a wealthy family, and my workday started at 7 a.m. and concluded some twelve or fourteen hours afterwards, leaving very little time for reading. I would read one Moore’s Open stories before work each morning from behind the wheel of a Range Rover fitted with a George W. Bush bumper sticker—my “nanny mobile”—and marvel at her lists, which usually appear intermingled with devastating character and plot details. Take this one from the story “Grace”: “Catching the horse’s nylon halter, Kelly green, bright against the blue sky, white clouds, after coaxing the mare into stillness, the white of her eye, Danny Martin came up to her and kissed her lips, he took his time, she could feel the mare’s breath on her wrists, he was holding the cup and he tasted of milky tea.” Moore’s collection was selected as a finalist for Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize in 2002 and deserves to be rediscovered and remembered, especially in light of her more recent, second Giller nomination.

Teju Cole, Known and Strange Things: Essays (2016)

Cole is a mesmerizing writer and a topical mixologist: he succeeds in discussing everything from politics to travel to photography, often all in the same essay. His powers are on full display in this 2016 collection of essays, though Cole is less of a self-conscious listerthan some of the other authors mentioned here. Rather than listing, Cole contemplates the list as form in his essay “A Reader’s War,” wherein he moves from a discussion of President Barack Obama’s nightstand reading list (which includes Marilynne Robinson, Philip Roth, and Jesmyn Ward) to a discussion of his figurative “kill list.” Cole explains how “the targets of [Obama’s] drone strikes are selected for death at weekly meetings in the White House.” His point is that the act of listing itself is a performative gesture, and sometimes a sinister one.

Gerard Reve, The Evenings (1947)

This is a novel of modern ennui, and such an undertaking demands lists. Like Knaussgård, the Danish writer Gerard Reve approaches the subject of modern life through the lens of itemization, but before postmodernity made such methods both feasible and likely. At one point in The Evenings, for example, Reve’s protagonist, Frits, rifles through the drawers in his family’s apartment and discovers a store of old, outdated lists. “He unrolled a paper scroll, bound with red ribbon. ‘List of Gifts Frits wants from St Nicholas’ was printed across the top … ‘a pea-shooter’; ‘a thing that buzzes through the air, that goes up’; ‘a real saw (not a toy saw)’; ‘all kinds of sweets’ and ‘a book like the one Frans has, about the black bears.’” Frits’ list of vaguely determined, childish desires has been tucked away amongst grocery bills, letters from camp, and other relics of itemized, modern life.

Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street (1928)

The critic Walter Benjamin is widely known, but not primarily as a distinguished lister. His 1928 collection of critical fragments and aphorisms, however, includes one of my all-time favorite lists. It’s titled “Number 13” and it’s a list of thirteen comparisons between books and prostitutes. Highlights include No. I (both books and whores “can be taken to bed”), No. VI. (both books and whores are popular with students) and No. XII (books and whores alike “have their quarrels in public”).

John Banville, Mrs. Osmond (2017)

Because I couldn’t bring myself to include Henry James, arguably the paterfamilias of itemization, I’m including Banville, instead. The Booker Prize-winning Irish writer’s 2017 novel, Mrs. Osmond, picks up where James himself left off at the close of his most famous novel, The Portrait of a Lady. Banville imagines what Isabel Archer’s life is like post-Gilbert Osmond, embracing James’ style (and his penchant for itemization) all along the way, as when Isabel reflects on the abuse that she suffered at the hands of her villainous husband. “… he would gaze down at her through half-closed eyes, in that way he did, and then would rise with a sigh and a cold smile, brushing aside her imploringly outstretched hand, would stroll away to his books, or his china, or his easel, and leave her there, trembling in frustration and shame.” I loathe James but I could not get enough of this novel, or of Banville’s detailed and convincing impersonation of James’ style in it. The way that Osmond, in this scene, turns his attention away from Isabel’s suffering and towards an array of his possessions (“his books, his china, his easel”) casts Isabel as part of his overall inventory.

Ada Limón, The Carrying: Poems (2018)

Stars and constellations return with thematic regularity throughout Limón’s dazzling, recent collection of poetry. In “Dead Stars,” for instance, Limón returns to the subject of how modern bodies are “made of old stars,” having previously explored the same idea in “The Vulture and the Body.” Then, observing that “we should really learn some new constellations,” she proceeds to list them: “We keep forgetting about Antlia, Centaurus, Draco, Lacerta, Hydra, Lyra, Lynx,” emphasizing the ways in which we misunderstand symbols in allowing them to become just a little too comfortable.

Magda Szabó, The Door (1987)

Lists are about control—about fantasies of dominion and oversight. So is this novel by the Hungarian writer Magda Szabó, which hinges on a conflict between a female writer and her domineering, aging housekeeper. Accordingly, Szabó’s novel occasionally erupts into the language of the list, as when Emerence, the housekeeper, mounts an assault on Magda’s domain in the form of numerous small, tchotchke-like “gifts.” Magda, overwhelmed and burdened by these impositions on her own taste, lists them as a means of regaining control over her own space: “a painting in a damaged frame … one half of a pair of patent leather boots; a stuffed falcon clinging to a branch; a pot for heating water adorned with a ducal coronet; and the makeup box of a former actress … a garden gnome, and a somewhat tattered statue of a brown dog.”

John Muir, The Mountains of California (1894)

The first thing to know about this book is that it’s not a book, it’s an extended and excruciatingly detailed list. The thoroughness of Muir’s observations is what distinguishes his writing style from that of his better-known naturalist colleague, Henry David Thoreau. Where Thoreau waxes and narrates, Muir taxonomizes and defines. The result is a surprisingly tender compendium of writings on individual subjects relating to Muir’s nineteenth-century explorations of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Muir furnishes lists (along with detailed elaborations) of glaciers, types of snow, lakes, meadows, and native wildlife, reserving one whole, glorious chapter for a treatise on the Douglas Squirrel, which he proclaims “the squirrel of squirrels,” in whom “every attribute peculiarly squirrelfish [appears] enthusiastically concentrated.” The Mountains of California is a charming work written by a man so thoroughly in love with his wild surroundings that he couldn’t help but list each and every aspect of them.

Sheila Liming is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Dakota. Her public writing has appeared in venues like The Atlantic, McSweeney’s, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. Her first monograph, about the writer Edith Wharton’s library and book-hoarding, is forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press while a second book, called Office, is forthcoming through Bloomsbury as part of its Object Lessons series.

The Ramblist is a regular column of The Rambling Reads in the form of a list of 5-10 book titles that together reveal how a common thread holds together even the wildest and most wandering reveries. 

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