‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.’ You see, even Elizabeth Barrett Browning was a bit of a list-maker. Of course, our love affair with lists goes back a lot further than her. Think of the first Book of Chronicles in the Old Testament: ‘And Nahshon begat Salma, and Salma begat Boaz, and Boaz begat Obed, and Obed begat Jesse . . .’ And so the begetting goes on and on. Surely, when Moses came down from the mountain top with the Ten Commandments he was bringing us an important early example of a not-to-do list.
For many people, Christmas is the most important list festival of the year – who is getting our Christmas cards, who is getting what present, things that still need to be bought. At that first Christmas, perhaps, Melchior took a piece of papyrus and wrote down, ‘Get frankincense.’ (It would be the wise thing to do.)
There is something comforting about making lists. When I was at boarding-school, to pass the time in geography lessons, we would write down the names of the top world cricketers we would select for an Earth v. Mars match – Denis Compton was always on it. I suppose lists give us the illusion that there is order in our lives – or that the chaos is manageable. Faced with an agonizing choice, we may even get a sheet of paper and write ‘For’ and ‘Against’ at the top of two columns, to convince ourselves that our choice is logical.
Journalists nowadays have become addicted. Articles are evolving into Listicles, offering us ‘Twenty Things You Never Knew about Ignorance’ or ‘The World’s Top Ten Listings Magazines’. I suppose these are considered to be a more digestible form of prose for readers whose attention span is shaky.
It is sometimes argued that to-do lists are a device we use to avoid doing things. They are ‘where important tasks go to die’ according to Kevin Kruse, author of 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management – a title which suggests he is no
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