15 of the Greatest Lists in Literature

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This week, Threaded reminded us of one of our favorite moments in Joan Didion’s The White Album — when she lists her packing list, incredibly simple and yet so revealing. Lists, of course, are no rare thing in literature, and have many uses, from adding quirk to showing off knowledge, and have storied positions in classic texts like The Faerie Queene (so many different kinds of trees) and The Illiad (200+ lines of Greek chieftains). Inspired by Didion, we spent some time thinking about our favorite lists in literature, from short to impossibly long, from lists that catalogue items to those that follow the train of imagination. Click through to check out the literary lists we think are the funniest, most revealing, most interesting or flat out strangest, and if we’ve missed your own favorite, tell us about it in the comments. And yes, it does not escape us that this is a list of lists. Meta is the way we like it.

From The White Album , Joan Didion

To Pack and Wear: 2 skirts 2 jerseys or leotards 1 pullover sweater 2 pair shoes stockings bra nightgown, robe slippers cigarettes bourbon bag with: shampoo, toothbrush and paste, Basis soap, razor, deodorant, aspirin, prescriptions, Tampax, face cream, powder, baby oil

To Carry: mohair throw typewriter 2 legal pads and pens files house key

This is a list which was taped inside my closet door in Hollywood during those years when I was reporting more or less steadily. The list enabled me to pack, without thinking, for any piece I was likely to do. Notice the deliberate anonymity of costume: in a skirt, a leotard, and stockings, I could pass on either side of the culture. Notice the mohair throw for trunk-line flights (i.e. no blankets) and for the motel room in which the air conditioning could not be turned off. Notice the bourbon for the same motel room. Notice the typewriter for the airport, coming home: the idea was to turn in the Hertz car, check in, find an empty bench, and start typing the day’s notes.

The entirety of Joe Brainard’s I Remember , a memoir in lists of memories. An excerpt:

I remember the first time I got a letter that said “After Five Days Return To” on the envelope, and I thought that after I had kept the letter for five days I was supposed to return it to the sender.

I remember the kick I used to get going through my parents’ drawers looking for rubbers. (Peacock.)

I remember when polio was the worst thing in the world.

I remember pink dress shirts. And bola ties.

I remember when a kid told me that those sour clover-like leaves we used to eat (with little yellow flowers) tasted so sour because dogs peed on them. I remember that didn’t stop me from eating them.

I remember the first drawing I remember doing. It was of a bride with a very long train.

I remember my first cigarette. It was a Kent. Up on a hill. In Tulsa, Oklahoma. With Ron Padgett.

I remember by first erections. I thought I had some terrible disease or something.

I remember the only time I ever saw my mother cry. I was eating apricot pie.

The complete filmography of James O. Incandenza, from Infinite Jest , David Foster Wallace. This thing is 8 pages long (in the footnotes, no less). An excerpt:

“Cage” – Dated only ‘Before Subsidiaztion.’ Meniscus Films, Ltd. Uncredited cast; 16 mm; .5 minutes; black and white; sound. Soliloquized parody of a broadcast-television advertisement for shampoo, utilizing four convex mirrors, two planar mirrors, and one actress. UNRELEASED

“Kinds Of Light” – B.S. Meniscus Films, Ltd. No cast; 16 mm; 3 minutes; color; silent. 4,444 individual frames, each of which photo depicts lights of different source, wavelength, and candle power, each reflected off the same unpolished tin plate and rendered disorienting at normal projection speeds by the hyperretinal speed at which they pass. CELLULOID, LIMITED METROPOLITAN BOSTON RELEASE, REQUIRES PROJECTION AT .25 NORMAL SPROCKET DRIVE

“Dark Logics” – B.S. Meniscus Films, Ltd. Players uncredited; 35 mm; 21 minutes; color; silent w/ deafening Wagner/Sousa soundtrack. Griffith tribute, Iimura parody. Child-sized but severely palsied hand turns pages of incunabular manuscripts in mathematics, alchemy, religion, and bogus political autobiography, each page comprising some articulation or defense of intolerance and hatred. Films dedication to D.W. Griffith and Taka Iimura. UNRELEASED

“Tennis, Everyone?” – B.S. Heliotrope Films, Ltd./U.S.T.A. Films. Documentary cast w/ narrator Judith Fukuoka-Hearn; 35 mm; 26 minutes; color; sound. Public relations/advertorial production for United States Tennis Association in conjunction with Wilson Sporting Goods, Inc. MAGNETIC VIDEO

“There Are No Losers Here” – B.S. Heliotrope Films, Ltd./U.S.T.A. Films. Documentary cast w/ narrator P.A. Heaven; 35 mm; color; sound. Documentary on B.S. 1997 U.S.T.A. National Junior Tennis Championships, Kalamazoo, MI, and Miami, FL, in conjunction with United States Tennis Association and Wilson Sporting Goods. MAGNETIC VIDEO

“Flux In A Box” – B.S. Heliotrope Films, Ltd./Wilson Inc. Documentary cast w/ narrator Judith Fukuoka-Hearn; 35 mm; 52 minutes; black and white/color; sound. Documentary history of box, platform, lawn, and court tennis from the 17th-century Court Of Dauphin to the present. MAGNETIC VIDEO

“Infinite Jest (I)” – B.S. Meniscus Films, Ltd. Judith Fukuoka-Hearn; 16/35 mm; 90(?) minutes; black and white; silent. Incadenza’a unfinished and unseen first attempt at commercial entertainment. UNRELEASED

[Read the rest here]

James Joyce’s insane list of Irish heroes in Ulysses

He wore a long unsleeved garment of recently flayed oxhide reaching to the knees in a loose kilt and this was bound about his middle by a girdle of plaited straw and rushes. Beneath this he wore trews of deerskin, roughly stitched with gut. His nether extremities were encased in high Balbriggan buskins dyed in lichen purple, the feet being shod with brogues of salted cowhide laced with the windpipe of the same beast. From his girdle hung a row of seastones which dangled at every movement of his portentous frame and on these were graven with rude yet striking art the tribal images of many Irish heroes and heroines of antiquity, Cuchulin, Conn of hundred battles, Niall of nine hostages, Brian of Kincora, the Ardri Malachi, Art MacMurragh, Shane O’Neill, Father John Murphy, Owen Roe, Patrick Sarsfield, Red Hugh O’Donnell, Red Jim MacDermott, Soggarth Eoghan O’Growney, Michael Dwyer, Francy Higgins, Henry Joy M’Cracken, Goliath, Horace Wheatley, Thomas Conneff, Peg Woffington, the Village Blacksmith, Captain Moonlight, Captain Boycott, Dante Alighieri, Christopher Columbus, S. Fursa, S. Brendan, Marshal Mac-Mahon, Charlemagne, Theobald Wolfe Tone, the Mother of the Maccabees, the Last of the Mohicans, the Rose of Castille, the Man for Galway, The Man that Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, The Man in the Gap, The Woman Who Didn’t, Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon Bonaparte, John L. Sullivan, Cleopatra, Savourneen Deelish, Julius Caesar, Paracelsus, sir Thomas Lipton, William Tell, Michelangelo, Hayes, Muhammad, the Bride of Lammermoor, Peter the Hermit, Peter the Packer, Dark Rosaleen, Patrick W. Shakespeare, Brian Confucius, Murtagh Gutenberg, Patricio Velasquez, Captain Nemo, Tristan and Isolde, the first Prince of Wales, Thomas Cook and Son, the Bold Soldier Boy, Arrah na Pogue, Dick Turpin, Ludwig Beethoven, the Colleen Bawn, Waddler Healy, Angus the Culdee, Dolly Mount, Sidney Parade, Ben Howth, Valentine Greatrakes, Adam and Eve, Arthur Wellesley, Boss Croker, Herodotus, Jack the Giantkiller, Gautama Buddha, Lady Godiva, The Lily of Killarney, Balor of the Evil Eye, the Queen of Sheba, Acky Nagle, Joe Nagle, Alessandro Volta, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Don Philip O’Sullivan Beare. A couched spear of acuminated granite rested by him while at his feet reposed a savage animal of the canine tribe whose stertorous gasps announced that he was sunk in uneasy slumber, a supposition confirmed by hoarse growls and spasmodic movements which his master repressed from time to time by tranquillising blows of a mighty cudgel rudely fashioned out of paleolithic stone.

Gatsby’s party guests, from The Great Gatsby , F. Scott Fitzgerald

Once I wrote down on the empty spaces of a time-table the names of those who came to Gatsby’s house that summer. It is an old time-table now, disintegrating at its folds, and headed “This schedule in effect July 5th, 1922.” But I can still read the gray names, and they will give you a better impression than my generalities of those who accepted Gatsby’s hospitality and paid him the subtle tribute of knowing nothing whatever about him.

From East Egg, then, came the Chester Beckers and the Leeches, and a man named Bunsen, whom I knew at Yale, and Doctor Webster Civet, who was drowned last summer up in Maine. And the Hornbeams and the Willie Voltaires, and a whole clan named Blackbuck, who always gathered in a corner and flipped up their noses like goats at whosoever came near. And the Ismays and the Chrysties (or rather Hubert Auerbach and Mr. Chrystie’s wife), and Edgar Beaver, whose hair, they say, turned cotton-white one winter afternoon for no good reason at all.

Clarence Endive was from East Egg, as I remember. He came only once, in white knickerbockers, and had a fight with a bum named Etty in the garden. From farther out on the Island came the Cheadles and the O. R. P. Schraeders, and the Stonewall Jackson Abrams of Georgia, and the Fishguards and the Ripley Snells. Snell was there three days before he went to the penitentiary, so drunk out on the gravel drive that Mrs. Ulysses Swett’s automobile ran over his right hand. The Dancies came, too, and S. B. Whitebait, who was well over sixty, and Maurice A. Flink, and the Hammerheads, and Beluga the tobacco importer, and Beluga’s girls.

From West Egg came the Poles and the Mulreadys and Cecil Roebuck and Cecil Schoen and Gulick the state senator and Newton Orchid, who controlled Films Par Excellence, and Eckhaust and Clyde Cohen and Don S. Schwartze (the son) and Arthur McCarty, all connected with the movies in one way or another. And the Catlips and the Bembergs and G. Earl Muldoon, brother to that Muldoon who afterward strangled his wife. Da Fontano the promoter came there, and Ed Legros and James B. (“Rot-Gut.”) Ferret and the De Jongs and Ernest Lilly — they came to gamble, and when Ferret wandered into the garden it meant he was cleaned out and Associated Traction would have to fluctuate profitably next day.

A man named Klipspringer was there so often and so long that he became known as “the boarder.”— I doubt if he had any other home. Of theatrical people there were Gus Waize and Horace O’donavan and Lester Meyer and George Duckweed and Francis Bull. Also from New York were the Chromes and the Backhyssons and the Dennickers and Russel Betty and the Corrigans and the Kellehers and the Dewars and the Scullys and S. W. Belcher and the Smirkes and the young Quinns, divorced now, and Henry L. Palmetto, who killed himself by jumping in front of a subway train in Times Square.

Benny McClenahan arrived always with four girls. They were never quite the same ones in physical person, but they were so identical one with another that it inevitably seemed they had been there before. I have forgotten their names — Jaqueline, I think, or else Consuela, or Gloria or Judy or June, and their last names were either the melodious names of flowers and months or the sterner ones of the great American capitalists whose cousins, if pressed, they would confess themselves to be.

In addition to all these I can remember that Faustina O’brien came there at least once and the Baedeker girls and young Brewer, who had his nose shot off in the war, and Mr. Albrucksburger and Miss Haag, his fiancee, and Ardita Fitz-Peters and Mr. P. Jewett, once head of the American Legion, and Miss Claudia Hip, with a man reputed to be her chauffeur, and a prince of something, whom we called Duke, and whose name, if I ever knew it, I have forgotten.

All these people came to Gatsby’s house in the summer.

[See also Fitzgerald’s personal list of troubles]

What happens when you search out Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, from If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

So, then, you noticed in a newspaper that If on a winter’s night a traveler had appeared, the new book by Italo Calvino, who hadn’t published for several years. You went to the bookshop and bought the volume. Good for you.

In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn’t Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You’ll Wait Till They’re Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too. Eluding these assaults, you come up beneath the towers of the fortress, where other troops are holding out:

the Books You’ve Been Planning To Read For Ages, the Books You’ve Been Hunting For Years Without Success, the Books Dealing With Something You’re Working On At The Moment, the Books You Want To Own So They’ll Be Handy Just In Case, the Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer, the Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves, the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified.

(and so on.)

The fabulously funny opening to Bridget Jones’s Diary , by Helen Fielding

New Year’s Resolutions

I WILL NOT

Drink more than fourteen alcohol units a week. Smoke. Waste money on: pasta makers, ice-cream machines or other culinary devices which will never use; books by unreadable literary authors to put impressively on shelves; exotic underwear, since pointless as have no boyfriend. Behave sluttishly around the house, but instead imagine others are watching. Spend more than earn. Allow in-tray to rage out of control. Fall for any of the following: alcoholics, workaholics, commitment phobics, people with girlfriends or wives, misogynists, megalomaniacs, chauvinists, emotional fuckwits or freeloaders, perverts. Get annoyed with Mum, Una Alconbury or Perpetua. Get upset over men, but instead be poised and cool ice-queen. Have crushes on men, but instead form relationships based on mature assessment of character. Bitch about anyone behind their backs, but be positive about everyone. Obsess about Daniel Cleaver as pathetic to have a crush on boss in manner of Miss Moneypenny or similar. Sulk about having no boyfriend, but develop inner poise and authority and sense of self as woman of substance, complete without boyfriend, as best way to obtain boyfriend.

I WILL

Stop smoking. Drink no more than fourteen alcohol units a week. Reduce circumference of thighs by 3 inches (i.e. 1 1/2 inches each), using anticellulite diet. Purge flat of all extraneous matter. Give all clothes which have not worn for two years or more to homeless. Improve career and find new job with potential. Save up money in form of savings. Poss start pension also. Be more confident. Be more assertive. Make better use of time. Not go out every night but stay in and read books and listen to classical music. Give proportion of earnings to charity. Be kinder and help others more. Eat more fiber. Get up straight away when wake up in mornings. Go to gym three times a week not merely to buy sandwich. Put photographs in photograph albums. Make up compilation “mood” tapes so can have tapes ready with all favorite romantic/dancing/rousing/feminist etc. tracks assembled instead of turning into drink-sodden DJ-style person with tapes scattered all over floor. Form functional relationship with responsible adult. Learn to program video.

The fantastic, absurdist opening of The Hundred Brothers , by Donald Antrim

My brothers Rob, Bob, Tom, Paul, Ralph, Phil, Noah, William, Nick, Dennis, Christopher, Frank, Simon, Saul, Jim, Henry, Seamus, Richard, Jeremy, Walter, Jonathan, James, Arthur, Rex, Bertram, Vaughan, Daniel, Russel, and Angus; and the triplets Herbert, Patrick, and Jeffrey; identical twins Michael and Abraham, Lawrence and Peter, Winston and Charles, Scott and Samuel; and Eric, Donovan, Roger, Lester, Larry, Clinton, Drake, Gregory, Leon, Kevin and Jack — all born on the same day, the twenty-third of May, though at different hours in separate years — and the caustic graphomaniac, Sergio, whose scathing opinions appear with regularity in the front-of-book pages of the more conservative monthlies, not to mention on the liquid crystal screens that glow at night atop the radiant work stations of countless bleary-eyed computer bulletin-board subscribers (among whom our brother is known, affectionately, electronically, as Surge); and Albert, who is blind; and Siegfried, the sculptor in burning steel; and clinically depressed Anton, schizophrenic Irv, recovering addict Clayton; and Maxwell, the tropical botanist, who, since returning from the rain forest, has seemed a little screwed up somehow; and Jason, Joshua, and Jeremiah, each vaguely gloomy in his own “lost boy” way; and Eli, who spends solitary wakeful evenings in the tower, filing notebooks with drawings — the artist’s multiple renderings for a larger work? — portraying the faces of his brothers, including Chuck, the prosecutor; Porter, the diarist; Andrew, the civil rights activist; Pierce, the designer of radically unbuildable buildings; Barry, the good doctor of medicine; Fielding, the documentary-film maker; Spencer, the spook with known ties to the State Department; Foster, the “new millennium” psychotherapist; Aaron, the horologist; Raymond, who flies his own plane; and George, the urban planner who, if you read the papers, you’ll recall, distinguished himself, not so long ago, with that innovative program for revitalizing the decaying downtown area (as “an animate interactive diorama illustrating contemporary cultural and economic folkways”), only to shock and amaze everyone, absolutely everyone, by vanishing with a girl named Jana and an overnight bag packed with municipal funds in unmarked hundreds; and all the young fathers: Seth, Rod, Vidal, Bennet, Dutch, Brice, Allan, Clay, Vincent, Gustavus, and Joe; and Hiram, the eldest; Zachary, the Giant; Jacob, the polymath; Virgil, the compulsive whisperer; Milton, the channeler of spirits who speak across time; and the really bad womanizers: Stephen, Denzil, Forrest, Topper, Temple, Lewis, Mongo, Spooner, and Fish; and, of course, our celebrated “perfect” brother, Benedict, recipient of a medal of honor from the Academy of Sciences for work over twenty years in chemical transmission of “sexual language” in eleven types of social insects — all of us (except George, about whom there have been many rumors, rumors upon rumors: he’s fled the vicinity, he’s right here under our noses, he’s using an alias or maybe several, he has a new face, that sort of thing) — all my ninety-eight, not counting George, brothers and I recently came together in the red library and resolved that the time had arrived, finally, to stop being blue, put the past behind us, share a light supper, and locate, if we could bear to, the missing urn full of the old fucker’s ashes.

Susan Sontag’s “Project for a Trip to China,” a short story told in lists from I, etcetera . An excerpt:

After having been in China for a while I will walk across the Lo Wu Bridge spanning the Shum Chun River between China and Hong Kong.

Five variables: Lo Wu Bridge Shum Chun River Hong Kong China peaked cloth caps …

Don’t panic. “Confession is nothing, knowledge is everything.” That’s a quote but I’m not going to tell who said it.

Hints: –a writer –somebody wise –an Austrian (i.e., a Viennese Jew) –a refugee –he died in America in 1951

“Descriptions of Literature,” by Gertrude Stein, 1924. An excerpt:

A book which tells why colonies have nearly as many uses as the yare to have now. A book which makes no difference between one jeweler and another. A book which mentions all the people who have had individual chances to come again. A book in translation about eggs and butter. A book which has great pleasuring in describing whether any further attention is to be given to homes where homes have to be homes. A book has been carefully prepared altogether. A book and deposited well. A book describing fishing exactly. A book describing six and six and six. A book describing six and six and six seventy-two. A book describing Edith and Mary and flavouring fire. A book describing as a man all of the same ages all of the same ages and nearly the same.

[Listen to the whole thing here.]

From James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Sunday, George Gudger : Freshly laundered cotton gauze underwear. Mercerized blue green socks, held up over his fist-like calves by scraps of pink and green gingham rag. Long bulb-toed black shoes: still shining with the glaze of their first newness, streaked with clay. Trousers of a hard and cheap cotton-wool, dark blue with narrow gray stripes; a twenty-five-cent belt stays in them always. A freshly laundered and brilliantly starched white shirt with narrow black stripes. A brown, green, and gold tie in broad stripes, of stiff and hard imitation watered silk. A very cheap felt hat of a color between that of a pearl and that of the faintest gold, with a black band.

Saturday, Mrs. Gudger: Face, hands, feet and legs are washed. The hair is done up more tightly even than usual. Black or white cotton stockings. Black lowheeled slippers with strapped insteps and single buttons. A freshly laundered cotton print dress held together high at the throat with a ten-cent brooch. A short necklace of black glass beads. A hat.

From Fahrenheit 451 , by Ray Bradbury

“What more easily explained and natural? With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word ‘intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be.”

Miss Flite’s absurd collection of birds in Bleak House , by Charles Dickens

“Two more. I call them the Wards in Jarndyce. They are caged up with all the others. With Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach!”

Humbert Humbert’s dreamings in Lolita , by Vladimir Nabokov

I have to tread carefully. I have to speak in a whisper. Oh you, veteran crime reporter, you grave old usher, you once popular policeman, now in solitary confinement after gracing that school crossing for years, you wretched emeritus read to by a boy! It would never do, would it, to have you fellows fall madly in love with my Lolita! Had I been a painter, had the management of The Enchanted Hunters lost its mind one summer day and commissioned me to redecorate their dining room with murals of my own making, this is what I might have thought up, let me list some fragments:

There would have been a lake. There would have been an arbor in flame-flower. There would have been nature studies — a tiger pursuing a bird of paradise, a choking snake sheathing whole the flayed trunk of a shoat. There would have been a sultan, his face expressing great agony (belied, as it were, by his molding caress), helping a callypygean slave child to climb a column of onyx. There would have been those luminous globules of gonadal glow that travel up the opalescent sides of juke boxes. There would have been all kinds of camp activities on the part of the intermediate group, Canoeing, Coranting, Combing Curls in the lakeside sun. There would have been poplars, apples, a suburban Sunday. There would have been a fire opal dissolving within a ripple-ringed pool, a last throb, a last dab of color, stinging red, smarting pink, a sigh, a wincing child.

Donald Barthelme’s “The Glass Mountain,” a short story in a numbered list of sentences and fragments, from Sixty Stories . An excerpt:

1. I was trying to climb the glass mountain. 2. The glass mountain stands at the corner of Thirteenth Street and Eight Avenue. 3. I had attained the lower slope. 4. People we looking up at me. 5. I was new in the neighborhood. 6. Nevertheless I had acquaintances. 7. I had strapped climbing irons to my feet and each hand grasped a sturdy plumber’s friend. 8. I was 200 feet up. 9. The wind was bitter. 10. My acquaintances had gathered at the bottom of the mountain to offer encouragement. 11. “Shithead.” 12. “Asshole.” 13. Everyone in the city knows about the glass mountain.