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The Emperor of Lists

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tags icon history lists philosophy

We humans love our lists. The other day, I was bored made yet another one. Inspired by Retro Gamer’s Top 100 Games To Play Before You Die (The Nintendo Consoles Edition)—of which I played 57 and only finished 21—I shambled around the house to count the amount of games I own, played, and finished for each Nintendo Console.

The result is, depending on the console, depressing. I should stop buying and start playing. In my defense, I sold and rebought a lot of copies, which does render the results semi-useless. I’m doing all right on the Nintendo Switch: 96% of the games I bought were actually played, and 57% of them finished. That’s pretty good! I played 84% of the DS games I own, but only finished 42% of them. Game Boy rates are even worse: 61%/25%. Somehow, actually slogging through to get to the end lost its appeal.

But hey, I made a list, and it somehow made me feel better.

Lists have been used since ancient times to counter the irrevocable advance of chaos. We make lists to take back control (at least partially). TODO items, project lists, scrum backlog tasks, currently working at post-its, 56 places to visit before you die, 12 clothes to wear this winter, top 10 movies of 2020, 34 bad habits to get rid of, top 3 holy grail fountain pens, 5 best role playing games of all times, the best and worst bakeries in the vicinity, and so forth—the list of lists is pretty endless.

To quote Umberto Eco, which I encountered in Irene Vallejo’s more than excellent Papyrus book:

Lists are the origin of culture.

Writing has started thanks to lists. We had to keep track of our weaponry inventory, the amount of breads that customers still had to pay, and how much grain was still in stock at the granary. Although it seems difficult to imagine, back then, people’s lives depended on that knowledge. The first written texts found by archeologists are not proza, nor quotes or commonplace books: they were simple lists.

A lot of ancient knowledge got lost in time thanks to nature or human-inflicted disasters. Papyrus, if exceptionally-well preserved, lasts for “only” 200 years. In the absence of the printing press, a small fire (“whoopsie-daisy!") immediately wipes out important pieces of human civilization.

After the death of Alexander The Great, any piece of papyrus Ptolemy The First could lay his hands on would be confiscated and copied. This marked the start of a culturally and intellectually important era: that of The Great Library of Alexandria. But in ancient times, books weren’t books, they were scrolls, and one had to constantly scroll down and up to read tiny inscriptions—without punctuation marks or spaces, as these waste precious space—on brittle papyrus. Easily glancaeble book covers (title/author/publisher) did not exist. Works were divided in multiple scrolls, well-hidden within an ever increasing collection…

They were in need of a list.

Callimachus of Cyrene, or as Irene likes to call him the grandfather of the librarians, was also a list-addict. Thanks to Callimachus, The Great Library finally got organized: things were sorted, authors and possible copies were traced, errors were rectified. And yes, a whopping list was painfully constructed (and sadly, later lost): The Pinakes, or “the tables”. Callimachus was the first Western cartographer of literature.

The Pinakes could easily be seen as the Emperor of Lists. It was later consulted, cited and partially copied countless of times. Greek writers started publishing works like The Best Chefs in Greece or On Reading. These works contained… more lists! Based upon the mother-of-lists, of course, as they didn’t want to go through the painful process and rather relied on Callimachus' efforts.

Thanks to other works that survived and mention The Pinakes, we now know that:

  • Aeschylus and Sophocles wrote more than 73 and 100 plays respectively, of which the great majority is lost;
  • Aristotle’s taxonomy of knowledge might have been influenced by the categorization of the list;
  • The Great Library of Alexandria once contained more than 500.000 scrolls, which were all lost! The Pinakes itself required more scrolls than Homer’s Ilias, which by itself was huge.

Digging through time while reading Vallejo’s Papyrus got me completely mesmerized. The Pinakes itself got lost and a staggering amount of literature got lost. That makes me think about my own written work. Would any of it still be relevant after 200 years, if I’d written it on papyrus and the mold started setting in, or the bugs started filling their belly? If you stroll through a library, so many works you randomly pick up will be irrelevant even after 20 years: everything technology-related unless you’re looking for nostalgia, laughably badly-written cooking books, “self help manuals”, business bullshit, stiff or mind-numbing novels.

I wouldn’t mind burning those. Still, who decides on what’s “important for humanity” and what’s not? A few ancient pyromaniacs did—by accident or otherwise. Caesar was forced to burn down a part of his fleet docked in Alexandria to prevent the invaders from taking over the city. The invaders didn’t—the fire did. Whoopsie-daisy, again?

Herodotus' Histories, Aristotle’s, Seneca’s, Cicero’s, Marcus Aurelius', … works—those are generally deemed very relevant, even (and especially) today. And are one of the lucky few that made it to this century. Who knows what important philosophical works have been lost…

Maybe I should start making a list of things to burn and a list of things to archive? But that’s too much ground to cover, so I’ll probably be better off creating top 1000 books to read before I die first.

Wait, is there a list of top 1000 lists somewhere, so I can get this thing jump-started?

I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

If you found this article amusing and/or helpful, you can buy me a coffee - although I'm more of a tea fan myself. I also like to hear your feedback via Mastodon or e-mail. Thanks!

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