You cannot swing a dead cat this time of year
without hitting a Top 10 list, and that list might well be "Top 10 Dead Cats of 2007." Celebrity meltdowns, speed-metal CDs, concept cars--we count 'em all. Why the obsession, for listmakers and list readers alike? Here are some guesses in the only format that matters.
10. God Made Us Do It. What do Yahweh, the Buddha and David Letterman have in common? They love them some lists! There's something magical about distilling wisdom into a single gleaming digit, which may be why so many religions use lists, from the Eightfold Path to the 95 Theses to the show-offy 613 laws of the Torah. An essay on morality would have been more nuanced than 10 commandments but harder to remember. And the tablets would have given Moses a hernia.
9. Words Suck! Numbers Rule! At least, that's the operating principle of much media today. Few journalists outside the Paris Review have escaped hearing about the need to break up text into "units" and "multiple entry points" and other vaguely pornographic editorial terms. People want the gist! Newspapers need to be like TV! TV needs to be like YouTube! Enter the list--the tapas menu of media, the sonnet for the era of PowerPoint. ("Top 10 Ways to Compare Thee to a Summer's Day: 10. More lovely. 9. More temperate ...")
8. They're Web-Friendly. If anyone loves lists more than the mainstream media do, it's the non-mainstream media. A Google blog search for "Top 10 list" returns rankings of "ways investing is like sex," "hottest smart girls in Hollywood" and "reasons why you should not stop posting Top 10 lists," from Cornwallseo.com a website about maximizing website traffic. Lists are inherently bloggy. They're bite-size, they're opinionated, and they're a guaranteed spur to conversation, which is to say argument. But hey, clicks are clicks.
7. Branding, Branding, Branding! And not just in the sense of selling stuff. Sure, certain businesses have discovered that a well-conceived list can be marketable. (Cough! TIME 100! Cough!) But for selling ideas--making them definitive and catchy--a number and a catchphrase do wonders. If only the Founding Fathers had named the Bill of Rights 10 Great Tips for a Freedom-tastic Country!, Americans might actually be able to remember them.
6. Because That Other Guy Is a Moron. Lists are a way of asserting authority. But they're also an invitation to challenge authority. Do people really enjoy reading a list they totally agree with? No! Good lists engage readers, enrage them and flatter their ability to think of better examples. A list isn't truly right unless it's a little bit wrong.
5. Because We Crave Justice. In much of our world today, everyone is special, every contribution is valuable, and every child gets a trophy just for playing. Not in Listworld. In Listworld, there are values. Things are good enough or they are not, and someone has made a damned decision about it. In Listworld, every day is Judgment Day.
4. To Remember (and to Forget). This is a hype society; we're constantly focusing on the next thing, the new thing. The year-end list is our single chance to pause, to see what held up over time--and to note, by omission, what we got overexcited about. Remember Evan Almighty? Well, neither do the Top 10 movie lists!
3. Because the Universe Is Random and Senseless. The alternative to summing up the year in any field with a big list is weaving its elements into some grand what-it-all-means theory. But sometimes life is just one damn thing after another. And so are lists: they impose order without making false connections. On a Top 10 list, apples and oranges live together in juicy harmony.
2. Because Life Is Short. In the end, a list is about one thing: the person who wrote it. Making a list is like making a mix CD for a crush; you do it in the hope that if someone sees what you believe matters and is great in the world, he will see to your core and know who you are. Lists are a means of asserting identity, saying "I was here"--especially at the end of the year, when we reminisce about time past and think about how much time we have left. While we are still around, we want to be known and we want to be heard. Which brings us to ...
1. Because If You Put Numbers on It, People Will Read Anything, However Trite, Trivial and Insipid, from Beginning to End.
I rest my case.