Monday, August 18, 2008

The Tyrrany of Lists

There are lists of Things to Do, which are perhaps the biggest tyrants of all because they separate us from Things We Want to Do, reminding us of obligations, resource management, convenience. Such lists of chores or errands is a constant reminder of the R-word, responsibility. Looking about us, we see chums and acquaintances whom we know to be more responsible because they seem so orderly, accomplished, disciplined. They are constant reproofs to our own lack of organized Things; it is their good nature that makes their accomplishments seem so worthwhile. Having such chums may one day lead us into Lists of Things to Do that will actually be implemented.

There are lists of Books to Be Read, requested by Deans and Department Chairs, suggesting a kind of high-water mark of literacy an incoming graduate student should have. I have seen such reading lists computerized or otherwise ranked (usually by some enterprising graduate student) into a consensus list of books the entire faculty thinks incoming students should have read. I was met with stony silence at one faculty meeting when I suggested a list of books incoming students thought the faculty should have read. I am like that I often get my best ideas from students, even ones I have invented.

As such things go, my favorite lists are of favored things, whether books, meals, types of wine or relative hop content of ale. Lists of friends, favorite people, favorite music these all have some extraordinary broadening effect instead of an exclusionary, limiting effect. It would be terrible to have to evolve a list so exclusionary that I could not have, say, Bill Evans, Wanda Landowska, Barry Harris, Bud Powell, Marian McPartland, Sviataslov Richter as favored pianists.

As of last night, my favorite point of view was second person, but my real favorite is balanced on a fulcrum with multiple on one side and whoever I'm reading and enjoying at the moment is using.

I am thinking about this business of lists in some measure because an editor wants me to start thinking about my top ten nonfiction and fiction books for 2008. This is not, I told him, something I would ordinarily do. His rejoinder: Nor would I ordinarily budget a check for you, but this seemed like a time to do something out of the ordinary.

With some regularity, I ask students in one particular class to make a list of as many elements as they can that they think comprise DNA traits of narrative writing. Character. Suspense. Surprise. Reversal. Dialog. Stuff like that. Then I ask them to assign a hierarchical order to the list, ranking their choice for most important as number one. To get them started, I cop out to considering plot at the foot of the list. Such a list has some demonstrable good; it calls to the individual's attention what his or her strengths and quirks are.

A list should have some good as its goal, even if it is to remind you to do something you were putting off or avoiding all together.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I make lists and never see them again. And while I'm a big supporter of the list I make for myself--even if I do forget about as soon as I tuck it into a folder--I'm less fond of lists other people hand me without an invitation.

Squirrel said...

DNA for narrative writing? I'm actually working on that. Number one: The Magic of Illusion.

As for your top ten fiction and nonfiction books, post the list when you figure it out so all your blog readers can feel guilty.

Wild Iris said...

For me the number one component of DNA on character quality is a "back story", or more simply put, motivation. What drives the individual according to, or against their will, as events unfold around them? And why is/was that will established to begin with?