March 2005

Tim Kindseth

nonfiction

The List: The Uses and Pleasures of Cataloguing by Robert E. Belknap

In the first chapter of his peculiar, inspired study of an underappreciated linguistic tool, Robert E. Belknap persuasively argues that the “list form is the predominant mode of organizing data relevant to human functioning in the world.” He succinctly explains how, from ancient, pre-literate notches carved into wood; to Sumerian tablets enchased with cuneiform; to Letterman’s nightly “Top Ten” rundowns, lists have been used throughout the ages as necessary repositories for information. Without lists there would be no way to conceptualize and order the surfeit of facts, the overabundance of reality that threatens to choke us every day. Going to the grocery store, how else but writing them down in a short vertical column on a scrap of paper could we recall all the ingredients for the fabulous lemon bars we plan to bake?

In The List: The Uses and Pleasures of Cataloguing, Belknap divides lists into two main categories: the practical and the literary. As for the former, we can include credit card statements, restaurant menus, telephone books, and U.S. News & World Report’s ubiquitous, manufactured hierarchy of colleges. He confessedly loathes rankings of this sort, pungently comparing them to an “invading species” and, more to the point, “weeds.” He even closes his preface with a keen metaphor yoking gross rankings to the aggressive, brassy garlic mustard that he sedulously battles each summer on his family’s plot of land in northern Michigan. Garlic mustard, he explains, displaces other “more delicate” wildflowers that provide a pleasant “variety of color, shape, scent, and attitude.” (Here he fittingly lists “harebell, starflower, sweet william, bloodroot, jack-in-the-pulpit, northern lily.”) Likewise, rankings -- which he disparages as being “purely media-generated” -- “threaten to crowd out the other, fragile, more intriguing, and unique lists,” meaning those of the literary species.

But how to distinguish the “literary” list? It is “marked by artistic endeavor,” according to Belknap, and, as a result, “its role is the creation of meaning, rather than merely the storage of it.” Throughout the book he cites copious examples from world literature: the exhaustive hexameter catalogue of ships in the Iliad, which functions not only as a way to store genealogical and geographical information, but also as a way to defer the narrative while conjuring the “magnitude of the impending war”; the enumeration of trees in the first canto of Spenser’s The Faerie Queen, which both alludes to previous cataloguers of trees -- Ovid, Virgil, Chaucer -- and structurally mimics the cluttered wood in which Una and the Red Crosse Knight find themselves lost; Shakespeare’s ingenious sonnet 106, which charts his Lady’s unrefined physical attributes while mocking and subverting the blason genre popular at the time.

Recognizing that the list of literary listers could go on and on, Belknap narrows his focus to examples from Emerson, Whitman, Melville, and Thoreau. He finds both stylistic and philosophical reasons for Emerson’s uses of lists. Stylistically they echo Biblical passages, and, more importantly, lists allow Emerson to philosophically articulate and enact his trailblazing transcendental philosophies of correspondence and unity in diversity. By itemizing what appear as random units of the natural world in an indiscriminate nominal list -- as when in Nature he enumerates a “leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment in time” -- Emerson shows that everything is equal, is “related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole.” No one item is more significant than the next; each “is a microcosm, and faithfully renders the likeness of the world.”
Whitman’s dazzling, expansive verse extended Emerson’s breakthrough credos. Many early critics, however, found his elastic poems without merit. Santayana, for one, complained of “an abundance of detail without organization” in Whitman’s work. Yet according to Belknap, diffuseness is partially the point: in Leaves of Grass the “inclusivity of the list becomes universally welcoming, open to all facets of life, according to his vision of a plural America.” In “Starting from Paumanok,” for instance, Whitman heaps locales etymologically linked to Native American languages; the line “Wabash, Miami, Saginaw, Chippewa, Oshkosh, Walla Walla” evinces the democratic thrust that fuels his anaphoric rhapsodies. It also exposes the Adamic naming impulse driving many of Whitman’s ebullient catalogues. The act of saying or writing a word or group of words, as Belknap points out, suggests a wondrous mastery over the subject at hand.

Belknap links both Melville and Thoreau to this obsession with naming. Ishmael’s comprehensive cetological taxonomies, for example, demonstrate his encyclopedic knowledge of whales, facts he spent years accumulating and which, of course, can never be complete -- just as in the end Ahab is finally outflanked by that horrible white whale. Nonetheless, Ishmael diligently tries to acquire enough information to metaphorically catch the beast. Knowledge is power, after all. He goes so far to have the dimensions of a whale skeleton found on an island in the Arsacides tattooed on his right arm. Thoreau similarly was possessed by a near fanatical devotion to knowledge of the flora and fauna around him in Massachusetts. His meticulous journals fill fourteen volumes, and while there weren’t any whales in Walden Pond, Thoreau found plenty of other fish and motley creatures to observe and comment upon near his spartan cabin in the woods. In a marvelous journal entry from February 16, 1855, Thoreau fastidiously lists the measurements of a dead mouse, noting at the end, “longest mustachios 1 3/8 inches.”

The List earned Belknap his PhD from Yale, and as a dissertation, there are certainly thick paragraphs and obscure terms that will force you to vacuum your copy of A Handbook to Literature: congeries, ubi sunt, polysyndeton, parataxis, pleonasm, Anacreontic. Overall, however, this weird, compelling monograph seems designed for the engaged, general reader. A small anthology of list extracts from various authors -- Charles Dickens, Voltaire, James Joyce, Christina Rossetti, Gertrude Stein, among others -- is even appended to the text. Moreover, Belknap’s familiar but not too chatty tone invites us all to closely consider a remarkable literary device used to capture the plentitude of our piebald world. And with him as our concerned, cogent cicerone, it’s hard not to marvel.

The List: The Uses and Pleasures of Cataloguing by Robert E. Belknap
Yale University Press
ISBN: 0300103832
252 pages