The reasons for lists

Italian author Umberto Eco was interviewed last week by the German publication Spiegel. The interview ‘We Like Lists Because We Don’t Want to Die’ discusses Eco’s recent involvement with curating an exhibition at the Louvre in Paris. The exhibition, as the title of the interview suggests, is all about lists.

I think that many unclutterers rely on lists — to-do lists, home inventories, calendars, project management timelines — to stay organized. Personally, lists keep me from worrying about forgetting things. I’d rather think about things I’m passionate about instead of having a constant stream of to-dos bouncing around in my brain.

Eco’s thoughts about lists are much more esoteric than mine. I found his interview on the subject matter to be thought-provoking and worth reading. From the interview:

Umberto Eco: The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists — the shopping list, the will, the menu — that are also cultural achievements in their own right.

From later in the interview:

Eco: … We have always been fascinated by infinite space, by the endless stars and by galaxies upon galaxies. How does a person feel when looking at the sky? He thinks that he doesn’t have enough tongues to describe what he sees. Nevertheless, people have never stopping describing the sky, simply listing what they see. Lovers are in the same position. They experience a deficiency of language, a lack of words to express their feelings. But do lovers ever stop trying to do so? They create lists: Your eyes are so beautiful, and so is your mouth, and your collarbone … One could go into great detail.

SPIEGEL: Why do we waste so much time trying to complete things that can’t be realistically completed?

Eco: We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That’s why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It’s a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don’t want to die.

What do you think of Eco’s thoughts on lists? Anyone else surprised by his statements or conclusions? Share your reactions in the comments.

(Thanks go to David Allen and Marginal Revolution for bringing this article to our attention. Image of Umberto Eco from the article.)

27 Comments for “The reasons for lists”

  1. posted by Lose That Girl on

    Oh dear. And here I was making lists just to be simply organized!

  2. posted by prufock on

    I think he’s hauling out of his behind, as far as the reason behind lists goes. He’s trying hard to sound insightful, but does he present any research, any evidence to support his assertions?

    We make lists because things occur in multiples, and there is no better way to keep track of them.

  3. posted by Ellen on

    One thanksgiving I was talking to my (very organized) Aunt and we decided that there were two kinds of people: those that put completed items on the list just so they could cross them off and those that don’t. Then my cousin walked in and we asked his opinion. He said “what list?” I guess there are three types of people.

  4. posted by Ruth Hansell on

    IMO, making lists is an effort to control reality. Life gets chaotic, random, and painful and we can’t do anything about much of it. Illness, natural disaster, power outages, even an unexpected wonderful opportunity all play havoc with our lives.

    Making a list is imposing order and maybe even meaning on some small part of life.

    I make lists All The Time. I teach my organizing clients how to make lists and manage them, how to prioritize items on the list, how to decide when to let go of things on the list, how to celebrate The Completed List. It’s comforting, reassuring, and is a tangible reminder that I do have some say in my own life. And lists are a great tool for getting back on course when life has thrown the odd earthquake into your day. Metaphorically speaking.


  5. posted by Vanessa on

    I get what Mr. Eco is saying: lists > infinity > immortality… but it still seems a bit of a stretch. For me, lists keep me from forgetting things and keep me from having to remember things. I.e., they allow my mind to be clear for more productive thinking.

  6. posted by Malena on

    Well, on the one hand I think he’s blowing smoke.

    But on the other hand – he may be on to something…. I love lists because they make it SEEM like I can do so much, if only it’s all on some list. And I forget a lot, but that’s another story.

  7. posted by megan on

    I love this! But I’m also a mathematician…

  8. posted by Lilliane P on

    His theory seems a stretch to me.

    I make lists because I’m of the “out of sight, out of mind” persuasion. It’s amazing what I can forget. My focus is and always has been intensely “now” which is both gift and curse. Lists, to me, are back-up disks to the day.

  9. posted by Barbara Tako on

    In a philosophical sense, he may be onto something. Practically speaking, lists are useful for putting tasks down on paper instead of having them spin around in and fall out of my head. Writing something down means I don’t have to keep as much mental clutter in my head. I try to help my clutter clearing students make lists that work for them.

  10. posted by SG on

    I’d certainly agree with him. Lists are an important part of preservation of memory — it’s just how our brains tend to operate. Most of the earliest works of written history still with us today, from Ancient Egypt and the like, are essentially lists of kings and things that happened during their reign. It wasn’t until later that people developed the idea of fleshing out the details. As far as remembering things goes, I suppose one might easily say that the great memorials we see today, such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, are lists writ large so we don’t forget either the individuals who died or the scope of the loss of life.

    Didn’t Thomas Hardy say that to be forgotten is the ‘second death’?

  11. posted by Katherine on

    I am not sure about the lists in this case, but his fear of death is startling. I just read this verse that caught my eye.

    “he (Jesus) shared in their humanity so that by his death he might…free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” Hebrews 2:14-15

  12. posted by L. on

    What Ruth and Barbara said. On a philosophical level, he has a point, but there is also a lot of mundane practicality in the list. Both perspectives can be true at the same time. Of course, Eco, as a great and somewhat arcane (IIRC) writer, will focus on the more abstract issues.

  13. posted by Anita on

    Wow, how small minded have we become that we can’t look beyond the immediately prctical? People, of course we make lists to keep track of stuff. A 3-year old could tell you that. A personal organizer might tell you why it’s important to keep track of stuff; an efficiency expert might tell you how much you can improve your productivity by properly keeping track of stuff.

    He’s not a personal organizer, nor an efficiency expert. He’s a philosopher. OF COURSE his comments will be sought from a philosophical standpoint, NOT a practical one. Saying that his comments aren’t practical enough is sort of like saying that a block of concrete isn’t soft enough to use as a pillow. Come on now, let’s try to get our blinders off for a minute…

  14. posted by megan on

    While I do need a true list (i.e. grocery list) every now and again, I find that making lists is typically a soothing mental exercise for me…. Taking that which seems monumental and boiling it down to a few points. I make “life lists” a lot, and it helps to keep me from, well, freaking out. I like to see the finite. But I don’t actually need the physical list in the end, I rarely USE them. I just need to MAKE them.

  15. posted by Amy on

    In my opinion he is 100% spot on. I went on to read the entire article and to look up what I could about his exhibition. He’s right. While he is being more philosophical and less scientific with the quote that we like lists because we do not want to die, when you read the full article it is easy to see why he might say that.

    He writes that we create lists to help us understand the infinite, whether that be the infinite number of details in our head or to come up with a definition of a platypus, as he talks about in the article. We have an idea that what we have in our head is infinite (but rudely disturbed when we die) and we’d better jot it down or otherwise chronicle those thoughts before they are forgotten. Lists conveniently allow others to continue on with our legacy or mission when we die, in that way our ideas to not die with us.

    He also uses the idea of a list in a broad way, as a way to chronicle details, and in that way a painting is a form of list. I do not see it a stretch at all. Is he wrong because we do not currently think of lists in that way?

    Imagine if you lived your entire life and did absolutely nothing. You did not accomplish anything. Wouldn’t most people wished they had crossed a few things off their “list” first? What is at the root of creating a list? Motivation (even if you are making the list post-completion). What is motivation if not the desire to live? If one has the desire to live than they are trying for the opposite of death. With out the human basic motivation death would not be feared. It is an explanation in reverse.

    And he does have many examples to support his theory in the full article. And frankly, what is research but observations and ideas chronicled and formed into understandable data = Lists.

    But I work with up to 40 scholars per year for a living…

  16. posted by Deb Lee on

    I love making lists! I love crossing things off my lists. Once in a while, I put something on my list that I’ve already done just so I can cross it off. Yes, a little odd, but I love the feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment I get from crossing it off. I’m not sure I like lists because I don’t want to die. I like lists because they help me remember what I need to do before my day dies! Plus there’s that satisfaction thing…

    Ironically, I did a news piece recently on “What Your To Do List Says About Your Personality.” I took a look at the lists of architects, HR reps, and interior designers and “read” what I thought it said about them. It was a different way of looking at these particular pieces of paper, so I guess I should give Mr. Eco a little wiggle room, too. It’s all about about interpretation, yes?

  17. posted by April on

    Ellen, love your comment. Hee hee! 🙂 Thanks to everyone who joins in the discussion here on (and to Erin for making it happen). It’s so much fun to hear everyone’s perspective on these different topics.

  18. posted by Laetitia in Australia on

    Then there’s the “bucket list” – that list of things to do / see before one “kicks the bucket”.

  19. posted by Red Coyote Hunter on

    Lists work.

    Nobody ever thought they would would preclude mortality. Do this, that. Just do it.

    Too many words;


  20. posted by Sherry Banarsi on

    Lists are just a way to organize and enumerate upon the chaotic amount of information we face everyday. Why can’t we just appreciate things for what they are and why must we look too deep into everything? It is a form of mental clutter to dwell on the meaning of something as utilitarian as lists . Admittedly I have a disdain of faux-intellectuals and Eco comes very close to that impression.

  21. posted by Kalle on

    Eco is a great mind who has the ability to see beyond the most obvious meanings in many things, apparently including the use of lists. I find his interpretation to be interesting and well presented, but it is obvious not everyone who reads Unclutterer share his inclination to philosophical thinking.

  22. posted by Krys on

    I actually get it. I think that he’s right. He’s definitely being esoteric, but putting things “down on paper” makes them real, and in a sense, permanent. We all fear our own impermanence to a degree, and we tend to do things that will make our presence on this planet somehow permanent.

    I didn’t expect to get so “deep” so early in the morning today! Thanks, Erin, for making me use my brain today! 🙂

  23. posted by lola meyer on

    Eco says, “It’s a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don’t want to die.”
    In the previous paragraph he talks of the lists we make and includes ‘the will’. I’m wondering how you can make a will and not think about death? Seems like his philosophy has a direct contradiction.
    To make a generalization that indicates ‘list making’ equals ‘death phobia’ seems rather narrow. It would be like saying all people hoard stuff for exactly the same reason. As we all know, there are different motives for behavior.

  24. posted by Ruth on

    Thank you for highlighting this article. It was very interesting.

  25. posted by Joie on

    Love it, love it, love it.

    Also FYI, there is nothing “faux” about Umberto Eco. Unfortunately, many hold distrust toward intellectuals in general (witness this country’s current and recent political discourse). Sorry we made you think too hard there for a minute!

    Thank you for posting this, Unclutterer.

  26. posted by From the Depths of My Google Reader « Gouda Buddha Books on

    […] Umberto Eco justifies my endless list-making. […]

  27. posted by Leslie on

    I think his theory is kind of beautiful.

    Of course I make lists for practical purposes – what homework I have to do this weekend, what groceries need to be purchased, what I need to do at work this week, etc. But I also make lists of things I love, books I’ve read, things that make me angry, things that make me laugh.

    I also work in a library, where my job is to add music to the catalog. The mission of a library is to collect, preserve, and provide access to the sum of human knowledge. What is a card catalog (or these days, an OPAC – Online Public Access Catalog) but a gigantic list?

    I think lists contain so much more than the mundane. One of my favorite websites is You can get so much insight into people and learn so many beautiful things about them by browsing the kind of lists they make. And the listing of all those hopes and dreams and accomplishments provides a kind of immortality.

    Yes, we think about death. We know we are finite. I think most of us hope our accomplishments are not.

Comments are closed.