4 Reasons Why I Love and Hate Lists

I hate lists. I particularly hate “to-do” lists. I make lists all the time. And I always have a to-do list near my desk.

Lists have been around for a long time. Leonardo da Vinci made lists of things and things to do. George Washington made lists. Fictional characters like Jay Gatsby made lists.

Lists must have some appeal. The horribly-named and just plain horrible online “content” known as the “listicle” seems to get lots of views. “10 Ways to _____” or “The 7 Best _____” or “The 5 Things You Need To Do This Weekend” seem to promise a fast way to better your life. Maybe it is part of the same movement that makes slide presentations full of short bulleted lists so popular. Here are all the answers in an easy-to-digest package.

I consider the writer and scholar Umberto Eco to be a wise man. He said that “The list is the origin of culture,” when he gave a Der Spiegel interview. He had just curated an exhibition on the history of the list at the Louvre.

That certainly elevates my “Things To Do This Week” notepad writing to a new level.

da Vinci list
Leonardo’s to-do list

Eco can explain why we make lists, and I believe him. Leonardo’s lists certainly have taken on importance over the centuries. The lists of inventors and thinkers, such as Thomas Edison’s ambitious to-do list, give us another way of considering their creativity and the way their minds planned.

Edison list
One of Edison’s notebook lists

In the book, The Infinity of Lists: An Illustrated Essay. , Umberto Eco says that lists are the way we put order to chaos. I know that as I grow older I rely more on lists – shopping, projects around the house, tasks for work lists – than I did before. (Though I have been making lists since my teen years, some of which are in journals from that time.) They do help with the memory. Sometimes. I have been known to scribble on a list something like “Call Harry” and then the next day looked at it and wonder why I needed to call Harry. Was there some specific thing I wanted to tell him, or was it just that I thought it was time to chat?

Lists can be hopeful. Just this week, I made a list of garden ideas for next spring. I guess I plan to be alive in six months.

Lists can be depressing. I occasionally find lists of things I wanted to do from a year or more ago and realize I haven’t done many or any of the things on it. What have I been doing with my life?

I have a love/hate relationship with my lists. But when I finish typing this sentence and hit “publish,” I can cross something off this week’s list, and that I find quite satisfying.

The Name of the Rose Is Eco

umberto eco

One of the extraordinary humans we lost last year who won’t make the celebrity In Memoriam lists is Umberto Eco. He was an Italian semiotics scholar who wrote an unlikely best-selling novel that launched a literary career.

Semiotics was a field I had never heard of when I encountered Eco’s book and looked up the word in a print encyclopedia. It was 1980. It is the study of meaning-making. It turned out to include many of things that I had been trained to use as an English major, such as analogy, allegory, metonymy, metaphor and symbolism.

The novel that brought him to the attention of many people was The Name of the Rose. It was an unlikely bestseller being a murder mystery set in a 14th-century monastery. It is filled with  biblical references and discussions of Christian theology and heresies.

It is set in 1327 in a Benedictine Italian abbey that is being investigated for heresy by Brother William of Baskerville who becomes our detective after seven bizarre deaths occur at the abbey. He may be a character in the Sherlock Holmes mold, but he would say he was influenced by Aristotle, Aquinas and Roger Bacon. There are plenty of ciphers,  secret symbols and coded manuscripts in the novel that darkly twists like the labyrinth passages of the abbey.

It was an international best-seller. It even became a 1986 movie starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater.

I once described the book to a friend who said, “So, it’s like the Dan Brown books?”  Though it may share some aspects with Brown’s Langdon bestsellers (The DaVinci Code, Angels and Demons),  Umberto Ec’s novels have very different intentions. At the risk of sounding snobby, I would say his books are much more cerebral and literary.

That being said, I tear through the Dan Brown page-turners too. Eco said of his first novels’ success that he thought that “People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged.”

Another Eco novel is Foucault’s Pendulum which in brief does sound like a Brown novel. Three bored editors in Italy create a hoax that weaves in Kabbalah, alchemy, conspiracy theories and connects the medieval Knights Templar with other occult groups from ancient to modern times. The hoax and plot involves a map indicating the geographical point from which all the powers of the earth can be controlled. This point is in Paris at the site of the real Foucault’s Pendulum. The Foucault Pendulum is named after the French physicist Léon Foucault who created this simple device as an experiment to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth. It turns out that some of the occult groups included in the hoax are real and not happy about someone’s attempt to wrest away their power.

I met Umberto Eco very briefly after he gave a reading in New York. His talk was hard to follow. More of it was about his teaching at the University of Bologna and the application of semiotics to popular culture like films, James Bond and even the comic strip Peanuts characters. He was funny, even though I wasn’t always sure I got the joke, I knew it was a joke. It reminded me of my undergraduate philosophy classes when I understood all the words being said, but I wasn’t sure what they meant as sentences.

I had a hard time with two of his other novels – The Island of the Day Before (1994) and The Prague Cemetery (2011), but the books always get me thinking and also digging around for more information about the people and ideas alluded to in them.

Novelist Salman Rushdie was not a fan. In writing about Foucault’s Pendulum he said it was “humorless, devoid of character, entirely free of anything resembling a credible spoken word, and mind-numbingly full of gobbledygook of all sorts.” Then again, I’m not a Rushdie fan.

Someone asked Eco at the reading if he would prefer to live in the Middle Ages. He quickly answered no, and said that he prefered the Middle Ages of his imagination to the actual historical period which was probably a very depressing time to be alive.


“R” in semaphore

We spend a lot of our lives interpreting symbols. I don’t mean those in fiction and poetry from your English class, but decoding meanings of images and man-created symbols in our physical world.

Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung got very academic and serious about it in his Man and His Symbols. He went a little bit over the edge and personal in his The Red Book.

There is a website at symbols.com devoted to many common and uncommon symbols that we might encounter any day.

libraFor example, my Zodiac sign is Libra, one of the twelve astrological signs that originates from the constellation of Libra. Some people take Zodiac signs very seriously. I treat it more as real astronomy rather than astrology. Libra is the 180-210th degree of the zodiac, between 180 and 207.25 degree of celestial longitude, which the Sun transits this area on average between (northern autumnal equinox) September 23 to October 22 each year.

But Jung’s devotees started collecting mythological, ritualistic, and symbolic imagery. The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism with institutes throughout the U.S. has been collecting for 80 years.

Semiotics is the study of signs in many forms (likeness, analogy, metaphor, signification etc.). Semiotics is closely related to the field of linguistics, which also studies the structure and meaning of language, but semiotics also studies non-linguistic sign systems. Semiotics has three branches: Semantics (relation between signs and the things to which they refer; their denotata, or meaning), Syntactics (relations among signs in formal structures) and Pragmatics(relation between signs and sign-using agents).

I read Umberto Eco‘s novel The Name of the Rose years ago. (It’s the intellectual’s version of a Dan Brown novel, full of secret symbols, coded manuscripts, and a labyrinth a medieval abbey.)  It was later that I found out that Eco is a professor of semiotics. One of his theories is that every cultural phenomenon can be studied as communication.

There are many branches of semiotics.  I guess I have been doing my study of film semiotics for a long time – though it has rarely been an academic pursuit.