/ 26 February 2010

The Infinity of Lists

The Infinity Of Lists

The infinity of lists by Umberto Eco (Maclehose Press)

The esteemed Umberto Eco brings us a weighty volume in The Infinity of Lists. Quite literally weighty — the book weighs close on 300g and clearly no expense was spared on the paper quality, the number of full-colour plates or the extraordinarily thick cover.

It’s a masterpiece of printing that shows real gumption in a world of ebooks and Kindles — Eco and the publisher, Maclehose Press, clearly throw the gauntlet down before electronic books with a truly beautiful, heavy, colourful revel in the beauty of traditional print.

And that’s the most interesting thing about this book.

The content itself is, as the title suggests, about lists. The subtitle: “From Homer to Joyce” is indicative of the nature of the lists we can expect; a definite leaning to the poetic list, rather than the shopping list or the “to-do” list. But that doesn’t make it more engaging: the book is at first glance a list of lists. Even if it is defining poetic lists (paintings, poems, works of fiction, curious collections …), the act of listing them turns the book into more of a bibliography than a poetic list itself.

More so, the true list-purpose of the book is somewhat obfuscated — is it a list of lists, or a list of types of lists, with examples of each? The book tends towards the latter, making it even more arm-gnawingly boring, reading more like Eco’s lecture notes than an interesting dip into the list as a creative device by history’s greatest writers and painters.

And this just isn’t like Eco — a modern writing and thinking legend. Whether you read his novels, his columns or his factual books, Eco usually imbues his writing with a dry black humour, insight; and, most importantly, accessibility to complex concepts that would otherwise be beyond us.

The Infinity of Lists is the antithesis to this: boring, inaccessible and reading more like a university thesis.
The examples themselves are the most interesting part of the book — you’ll discover (or rediscover) some greats, such as Italo Calvino, Wislawa Szymborska, Marcel Proust, Victor Hugo, Oscar Wilde and of course James Joyce. But they’re watered down with some truly boring lists, such as Homer’s list of captains of the ships invading Troy — an important example illustrating the use of a finite list to hint at the infinite, but of interest only to the most dedicated of classical culture scholars. Likewise Hesiod’s list of divine creatures or Francois Rabelais’ exhaustive list of all the games that the giant Gargantua knew how to play tend towards the terminally boring — there to illustrate a list concept (such as the list of excess) rather than being interesting in themselves.

Snippets of Shakespeare, Milton and Mark Twain frustrate rather than elucidate, giving just a list from the great masterpieces, and devaluing the entire work in a way by saying: “This is a list, that is a list…” By the time Eco has finished one starts seeing any work, anything with a comma or conjunctive, as a list.

Eco may be right and he may find this topic deeply moving and interesting, but his list of lists, and his list of types of lists, simply isn’t. In Eco’s own words, the difference between his subjects (the poets, authors and painters) and his subject (The Infinity of Lists) is that “practical lists represent a form, because they confer unity on a set of objects that, no matter how dissimilar among themselves, comply with a contextual pressure, in other words they are related for their being expected to be found in the same place, or to constitute the goal of a certain project … It is obvious why people make practical lists. But why make poetic ones? — Because we cannot manage to enumerate something that eludes our capacity of control and denomination …”

Eco could have made his work a poetic list — the cover, artwork, binding, weight, and everything about the printing excess suggests that we can expect as much creativity in the content as we experience in the form. He even tells us in his introduction, “… the search for lists was a most exciting experience not so much for what we managed to include in this volume as for all those things that had to be left out. What I mean to say, in other words, is that this is a book that cannot but end with an etcetera.”

Except it doesn’t. It describes the list and the catalogue, the visual list, the ineffable list, the infinite list, the pragmatic list, lists of memorabilia, collections and treasures, lists of things and places, lists of excess, coherent excess, chaotic enumeration, mass media lists and even non-normal lists (I’m getting this straight from the list of chapters). The gamut of types of lists is the true list of the book, and Eco covers it pretty conclusively in his 400 pages.

And so, despite his promise in the introduction, the book does not end with an etcetera. It just ends. Eventually. Thank God.