With the end of the year coming up, everyone’s already getting into the list-making game. Top 10 lists are about to descend on us like an asteroid descending on the dinosaurs.
Sometimes, it seems as if lists are the central cultural form of the nation. We’d rather scan a list than read the book. Untold significant conversations are prompted by the idea that Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo might be the alltime greatest movie ever made, and whether something is seriously wrong in the cultural ethos if Citizen Kane is bumped down a few pegs.
So far, James Joyce’s Ulysses seems to be holding onto its rank as the Number One novel of the 20th Century, although there are enough quibbles to warrant the opinion that the only thing they all seem to agree on is that Ulysses is hard to read.
Of course, lists have been around a long time. They predate writing. Some of the first evidence we have of human existence are the odd scratchings on bone or stone that anthropologists believe are calendar listings. Prehistoric people notched their medicine sticks to remind them of significant events — they were memory aids.
And the ancient Incas communicated with a knotted string, a “quipu,” each knot standing for an item the messenger was required to remember.
So, why not cut to the chase. It is lists that matter in the new century, so let’s forget the long difficult novels, or the subtitled films, and decide what are the 50 Best Lists of All Time.
It is no surprise that the 10 Commandments come in at No. 1. It is a consensus choice. There were a few rumblings among the more erudite judges that perhaps Hammurabi’s Law should displace the Decalogue, but finally, the conciseness of the Torah beats out the comprehensiveness of the Babylonian ruler.
The list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, compiled by the Byzantine mathematician Philon, one of the oldest and most venerable in the world. In his De Septem Orbis Spectaculis, he listed the Pyramids, the Hanging Gardens, the Olympian Zeus, The Ephesian temple of Diana, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes and the Lighthouse of Pharos.
His list was so influential, that when they made King Kong in 1933, they called the big ape, the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” And everyone in the audience knew what the reference was.
The Bill of Rights comes in at No. 3, although it is a list of amendments to the Constitution that many Americans are vague about, except for their favorite one, whether it be the First and Larry Flynt, the Second and Wayne LaPierre or the Seventh and David Petraeus — No, wait, sorry: That last one is the 10 Commandments.
Fourth is the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, or the “Index of Prohibited Books” first published by the Vatican in 1557. At one time, it listed 5,000 books that were bad for you, and undoubtedly more lively than many of the moldy classics on the Modern Library list.
And rounding out the top five is the Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., perhaps the most moving of the lists and the only one that people actually make a pilgrimage to.
This last proves that lists need not be trivial.
The 50 top lists of all time
1. The 10 Commandments
2. The Seven Wonders of the World
3. The Bill of Rights
4. Vatican’s Index of Forbidden Books.
5. The Vietnam Memorial, Washington DC.
6. FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List
7. Billboard’s Top 40
8. New York Times’ Bestseller List
9. Nixon’s Enemies List
10. The Periodic Table of the Elements.
11. The Seven Deadly Sins.
12. National Register of Historic Places.
13. AFI’s 100 Best American Movies.
14. The Book of Lists by David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace and Amy Wallace.
15. Joe McCarthy’s list of Communists in the State Department
16. 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover by Paul Simon
17. Elizabeth Taylor’s husbands
18. AP’s Top 20 College Football list
19. The zodiac
20. The Fortune 500
21. Schindler’s List
22. Charles Messier’s catalog of astronomical nebulae
23. The Koechel catalog of Mozart’s works
24. TV Guide
25. People magazine’s list of the 50 most fascinating people.
26. Butler’s Lives of the Saints
27. Standard and Poor index
29. Dow Jones Industrials
30. Martin Luther’s 95 Theses.
31. The Arbitron Ratings.
33. Oxford English Dictionary
34. USA Today Weather Page
35. Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature
37. The “catalog of ships” in the Iliad.
38. The notches in Wild Bill Hickock’s revolver handle
39. End credits of Airplane
40. Money magazine’s Best Places to Live in the U.S.
41. Military Manual of Arms.
42. David Letterman’s list of “Top Ten Things That Sound Good When Said by James Earl Jones.”
43. The list of uses for WD-40.
44. Mr. Blackwell’s “worst-dressed” list.
45. The List of Adrian Messenger
46. Franz Liszt
47. Martha Stewart’s “To-Do” list.
48. Santa’s list of those who are naughty and nice.
49. JFK’s little black book.
50. 50 Top Lists of All Time.