Off the beat: An ode to the list

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Michael Drummond/Senior Staff

I’ve almost always been a compulsive list-maker, as my sticky note and bulletin board-covered abodes over the last few years here in Berkeley can easily attest.

Or just glance over my shoulder and sneak a peek at my computer screen — it’s covered corner to corner with lists on those colorful digital squares Microsoft has presumed to name “sticky notes” after the real thing.

I write some lists to keep myself from lying awake in bed late at night worrying about the next day’s classes, meetings and other responsibilities. Some lists are for long-term planning — ambition in bullet points, if you will — while others serve as only short-lived reminders to move over the laundry to the dryer or take out the trash.

The lists on my walls, desk and hard drive right now run the gamut from hour-by-hour breakdowns of a single day’s activities to life-long aspirations for travel and professional achievement. All of my lists have titles — how else would you know it’s a list or what it’s for? — but they vary in degrees of specificity and seriousness.

One list, where I’ve quickly summarized my obligations for this semester in bullet points, is named simply “Things to stick with” — just in case I should ever doubt my capability or commitment in the coming months of sweat and stress. Another, somewhat more-ambitious list entitled “Adventures to have!” arranges the worldwide cities and sites I hope to visit, in geographic order with subdivisions by continent, nation and ease of access from California.

My favorite lists, though, are my lists of favorites. These occupy a folder of their own on my computer, typed over years into now-lengthy Word documents that seem unending, even when scrolling downward at a breakneck pace. My “Favorite Quotations” list — divided into prose and poetry and then arranged by author’s last name for the easiest searching when composing papers or just looking for a little wisdom — has now surpassed 26,000 words, spread over 21 pages of eight-point Times New Roman font.

I occasionally turn to that list to review the key points of an important book that was once adored but then forgotten — the written word, unlike my memory, doesn’t have a pesky habit of loosening its grip over time.

More often, though, the wise words on that list are a refuge and a solace in times of emotional confusion, intellectual dissatisfaction or pure desperation.

“Favorite Books” — 158 entries and counting, alphabetized by author and then color-coded for each text’s personal significance — is another old and endearing list of mine but also a recent target of mockery. “Pearls Before Swine”cartoonist Stephan Pastis — whose work I quite like, actually — apparently also keeps an ongoing list of the books he’s read, but he thinks the practice illogical, or at least strange.

“Just so you know,” Pastis’ cynical Rat character reminds him after learning of the author’s own book list, “When you die, you don’t get a prize.”

First of all, Mr. Pastis: I know. There will be no rewards for reading 1,000 books by the time I die, nor will there be any for completing tomes like Plato’s “Republic,” Hobbes’ “Leviathan” and Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” — the latter two are entries on my “Books to Read” list rather than my list of favorites. But some afterdeath windfall isn’t the point of my incessant list-making — it’s to live a better life, here and now, in my every day.

Perhaps more important than any other reason for my habit of making lists is the sense, which always follows the crafting of a particularly comprehensive or ambitious list, that there is a strategy behind my strivings, a logic underpinning my labors, an earnest intent behind all my endeavors. Lists require me to think rationally about life — and put it on paper — coherently and concisely. Lists, for me, are not dusty, unopened encyclopedias, but worn and weathered guidebooks to my past, present and wide-open future.

Lists are, in some ways, my story.

The unsurpassable Greek philosopher Aristotle keenly understood this value of pursuing a vibrant relationship between reason, experience and our actual lives, rather than merely storing and referencing knowledge in some purposeless mental exercise. The intellectual life is, Aristotle said, more about doing than knowing, after all. Sadly, this makes practical wisdom especially elusive for the young and immature — or for those, list-makers or not, who neglect to integrate every aspect of their being into one targeted, complete and purposeful whole.

“The defect is not due to lack of years but to living the kind of life which is a succession of unrelated emotional experiences,” Aristotle said. “To one who is like that, knowledge is as unprofitable as it is to the morally unstable. On the other hand, for those whose desires and actions have a rational basis, a knowledge of these principles of morals must be of great advantage.”

The good life that Aristotle recognized, a kind of life that amounts to more than a mere “succession of unrelated emotional experiences,” is an innately human aspiration. It’s that need to make sense of life, to understand it and tell it as a story, that I find at least a little bit fulfilled when I put to paper where I’ve been and where I’m going.

And yes, you can bet that quote made my list.

“Off the Beat” columns are guest columns written by Daily Cal staff members until the fall semester’s regular opinion writers are selected.

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