Lists: The Origin of Culture

Can you imagine a world without lists? Complete and utter chaos, I would suspect. But lists do so much more than bring order to the world. I’ve said before that nothing inspires action faster than a list. Write a to-do list and it sets you up for the doing. Lists can also provide insights, extract and engage experiences, and evoke memories and emotions.

In 2009 Italian novelist Umberto Eco opened an exhibition at the Louvre in Paris that was entirely dedicated to lists. He spoke about the essential nature of lists and why he chose lists as the subject of his exhibition in an interview with Spiegel.

“The list is the origin of culture,” says Eco. “What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible… 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.”

Eco goes on to say that in cultural history, the list prevails. He’s right of course. Which brings me to Shaun Usher’s book Lists of Note (a good one to put under the tree this season). He provides a snapshot of the world’s most intriguing lists on The Telegraph. Some offer alternatives, some offer advice, some offer a piece of history. All provide an intriguing insight into a mind, a moment, a time in the life of someone else. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Alternatives to arguably one of the most famous line in cinema, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” (fromGone with the Wind), following US Censors deeming the word ‘damn’ to be offensive and asking for it to be removed. The film’s producers listed other options such as “I don’t give a whoop!” Thankfully the US Censors’ decision was reversed as ‘whoop’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
  • Johnny Cash’s ‘Things to do today!’ list, revealing some basic personal instructions (not smoke; not eat too much) alongside instructions of a more revealing nature, showing his sensitive side (kiss June; not kiss anyone else; go see Mama).
  • Harry Houdini’s scene and prop list. It was very particular, right down to measurements which were likely crucial given the death-defying acts that he performed on stage.
  • John Lennon’s list of words for words, which he penned to a young man who had written him (New York: great; Ringo: friend; Yoko: love; Bootlegs: good; Paul: extraordinary).
  • Charles Dickens’ list of fake book titles, which he had invented to have printed to fill the bare bookshelves in his new home in Tavistock House, London.

A great list is a constant work in progress so I look forward to seeing the list of Lists of Note grow. It’s like Eco says, “I was fascinated with Stendhal at 13 and with Thomas Mann at 15 and, at 16, I loved Chopin. Then I spent my life getting to know the rest. Right now, Chopin is at the very top once again. If you interact with things in your life, everything is constantly changing. And if nothing changes, you’re an idiot.”

Image source:

Recent Posts

Kevin Roberts

Kevin Roberts is founder of Red Rose Consulting; business leader and educator; author and speaker; adviser on marketing, creative thinking and leadership.


Books on


Join us. Sign up for our blog.

Receive our regular updates in your in-box.