In their excellent hardcover book titled after their company, Aesop authors Jennifer Down and Dennis Paphitis write about the power of lists in an essay entitled “An Inventory of All Things”:
At Aesop, there are lists on how we open and close a store or office each day, lists detailing laboratory processes, lists describing how to fold gift-wrap so that tape is never visible. Analogue lists, updated lists, anachronistic lists; lists in revision; knotty lists that predate the advent of spreadsheets. Today, all these are digitised and regularly updated, yet much of the wisdom contained in the earliest of them remains as relevant now as in the late ’80s.
Importantly, too, the lists must travel to any region where we find ourselves. They appear in translation, and since translation may involve betrayal—as the adage ‘Traduttore, traditore’ (‘Translator, traitor’) intimates—it may be that, with time and reproduction, they also appear in forms modified—even bastardised.
The purpose of our list-making has been to provide an operational map, as well as a means of capturing changing nuance: in order for good ideas to be captured and replicated, they must first be documented. It’s thanks to these lists that changes at Aesop have generally been evolutionary and considered, rather than capricious or knee-jerk. And it’s thanks to them, too, and the history they contain, that the need for outside opinion has rarely arisen. In their functionality, their numbered composure, their frank and orderly reason, lists not only retain a record of the past, but also offer critical assistance in navigation of the future.
This description of lists is beautiful, and much more inspiring than the regular, stuffy, business jargon known as, “Standard operating processes.” Down and Paphitis also introduce the “fine company in our commitment to the format” of lists, with Leonardo da Vinci’s to-do list from 1940, as well as Isaac Newton’s Fitzwilliam Manuscript, and Georges Perece’s Je me souviens. They also nod to Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness (which I covered for Best of Books back in October 2020). This action is reminiscent of Merzbow’s and David Chang’s observations that each work they create, or action they take, is part of a much larger continuum outside of their space and time.
In the book, the authors also share examples of the lists the company writes, including Aesop’s City Guides and notes for receptionists. It’s incredibly inspiring and worth checking out.
This piece drew to mind David Leonhardt’s “In Defense of the Listicle,” where he invokes examples of the 10 Commandments and Martin Luther’s 95 Theses.
From there, I also came across an interview with Umberto Eco where he talks about lists:
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.
Eco’s connecting lists with culture and existentialism is fascinating. I’d entirely agree that culture starts as a list; a book has a table of contents and a glossary, a film has storyboards, an album has a tracklist (Ye publishes them before the album is even out!):
- Wikipedia has a list of lists of lists
- Twitter has threads which are lists of tweets
- Eddie Huang wrote a list of things he wanted to do
- B.J. Novak made and shut down a list startup
- Sarah Cooper expanded her list into a book
- Bucket lists are a thing
Also see make lists.