Wednesday's Idea: The list
Now and again you'll see a journalist attempt this: the expansive list that defines a given universe by the breadth of its contents.
A couple of weeks ago, Stacy Schiff had a decent piece in the New Yorker about Wikipedia, a vast universe if ever there was one. (And, in our humble opinion, mostly rubbish. But we're the last of the credentialists, apparently.)
Apparently, no traditional encyclopedia has ever suspected that someone might wonder about Sudoku or about prostitution in China. Or, for that matter, about Capgras delusion (the unnerving sensation that an impostor is sitting in for a close relative), the Boston molasses disaster, the Rhinoceros Party of Canada, Bill Gates’s house, the forty-five-minute Anglo-Zanzibar War, or Islam in Iceland. Wikipedia includes fine entries on Kafka and the War of the Spanish Succession, and also a complete guide to the ships of the U.S. Navy, a definition of Philadelphia cheesesteak, a masterly page on Scrabble, a list of historical cats (celebrity cats, a cat millionaire, the first feline to circumnavigate Australia), a survey of invented expletives in fiction (“bippie,” “cakesniffer,” “furgle”), instructions for curing hiccups, and an article that describes, with schematic diagrams, how to build a stove from a discarded soda can.
This is difficult. The task is not, as some assume, to choose the ten items with the very least in common; doing so would fail to give a reader any stiff sense of unity or character. It is rather to concoct a string of items that, though disparate, is capable of suggesting some pattern while simultaneously remaining diverse.
(Note from the English major: For a good example, see the Gabriel Garcia Marquez story “Big Mama’s Funeral.”)