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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READERS: Lists help organize our lives

By Maggie Walter
November 10, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST

COLUMBIA — Lists organize the world, especially my little kingdom.

Browsing through "The Book of Hierarchies" by Lisbeth Mark (1984), recently purchased at the Columbia Public Library's monthly book sale, brought to mind my propensity to procrastinate and how much I rely on lists to keep my world on track. (For example, why was I at a book sale when my to-do list ordered me to write this Show Me the Errors column?)


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It might be genetic, but most likely it's environmental influences that most contribute to list-making efforts.

My mother wrote list after list after list. There were shopping lists for groceries and household needs and lists of daily chores, especially for Saturday mornings. She had lists of clothing sizes, dinner menus, social and volunteer obligations, and addresses. Really, Santa's famous naughty-or-nice list pales in comparison to my mother's lists.

Lists abound in newsrooms and classrooms. There are work schedules, assignments, tests, projects, news budgets, how-to instructions, dos and dont's, calendars, sources and many other lists that keep production on track.

And, so, following my mother's example and my professional pursuits, I make lists. There are the generic day-by-day lists of appointments and prosaic chores, such as take out trash on Wednesdays, and lists of more sublime activities, such as books to read — someday. (I know some folks who do some chore and then write it on their to-do list so they can have the pleasure of crossing it off.)

It turns out, my mother was on to something with her list-making and was in stellar company.

Umberto Eco, the Italian author of "The Name of the Rose" and "Focault's Pendulum" among other fascinating tomes, extolled the virtue of lists in a 2009 interview with Der Spiegel, about Eco's "The Infinity of Lists: An Illustrated Essay" published earlier that year.

In the interview Eco says: "The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists — the shopping list, the will, the menu — that are also cultural achievements in their own right."

The closing statement of the interview, though, offers much to think about when it comes to list-making. Eco says, "We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That's why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It's a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don't want to die."

With that in mind, perhaps it's fitting that offers an article on how lists keep you healthy. Nancy Kalish's "7 surprising reasons why list makers are healthier, happier, and smarter" uses a list to tell about the healthfulness of to-do lists.

The benefits include:

"1. Gain control — Every time you cross something off your list, it’s like your own little pat on the back.

"2. Maximize brainpower — Jotting your chores down on paper cuts back your mental clutter.

"3. Make tough decisions — If you're paralyzed by indecision, make a brainstorm list.

"4. Beat a slump — List your happiest moments. Remembering happy events can lift your mood during a downer day.

"5. Find motivation — Let your to-do list egg you on when you feel like giving up on a goal.

"6. Achieve balance — Putting your priorities on paper can help you see the proverbial forest through the trees.

"7. Feel joy every day — Turn your to-do list into a bucket list. Make a list of up to 100 personal pleasures. Pursue one a week, and start planning the more ambitious ventures within the year."

And, so, with those tips in mind, I can now cross off "write SMTE column" from the to-do list and move on to finishing reading "The Book of Hierarchies" and someday to dive into Eco's "The Infinity of Lists: An Illustrated Essay."

For October, 10 participants submitted 13 entries in the Show Me the Errors contest. The winner is Tammy Miller of the Columbia Parks and Recreation Department who pointed out an error in a graphic.

She will receive a Missourian T-shirt and a copy of  "Yes, I Could Care Less" by Bill Walsh. We hope you'll join in the contest, too.

Maggie Walter is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and an interactive news editor at From "The Book of Hierarchies," here's a min-hierarchy of academe by James Lipton's "An Exaltation of Larks": "A plentitude of freshmen/A platitude of sophomores/A gratitude of juniors/An attitude of seniors/A fortitude of graduate students/An avunculus of alumni/A tenure of associate professors/An entrenchment of full professions."