Sep 21, 2010

The Origin of Lists

I've written a good deal about the concept of the canon and lists of great poems and books on this blog, since the whole topic gets short shrift among those who study Yvor Winters nowadays. (In fact, the matter gets no attention at all. For example, the dozen or so authors of the erudite and thoughtful essays in the valuable 1981 "Yvor Winters Issue" of the Southern Review, edited by Donald Stanford, made not one mention of the issue of the canon or of literary evaluation.) I enjoyed and found insightful an article in the Independent (UK) some months back, "The art of the chart: How we fell in love with ranking the world," on the modern history of making best-of lists. The author, a fellow named Boyd Tonkin, sees its origins in the still massively popular Guiness Books of World Records, which often to this day easily outsells the most popular thrillers, mysteries, and romance novels.

Yvor Winters clearly saw great value in making lists of the greatest literature, though he did not make it sufficiently clear what he was trying to accomplish with these lists. Most writers who study or write about his criticism — almost all academics of one sort of another — soft-pedal his lists, claiming with some embarrassment that they are made up of mere "favorites" of his (in the hope, I assume, that that will help make Winters a little more palatable). But I agree with Winters, as I understand him, that it's very important to make lists of the best, however much list-making has become trivialized in the past 40 or 50 years, however close it is coming to fatuity with all these books about the 500 or 1001 books one should read or movies one should see, or restaurants to hurry to, or theme parks to visit (and so on). Is my judgment that lists are important to the study of Winters related to this phenomenon? After all, I loved the Guiness Books when I was a kid (which came about at roughly the same time Winters was making his lists). It's an interesting matter to contemplate.

Tonkin opines that the current pop-culture (low-cult?) mania for making lists is a "dream of reason," the hunger to make order out of chaos. That could have been the purpose of the lists Winters made — and of those I have been making as well. But maybe it's much more than a dream, but a just application of reason in a world of numberless (and growing) ideas and opinions and positions on matters of every sort to say what we think is greatest and on what grounds we make our claim.

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