The Other Side

The Joy of Lists


I am not quite old enough to remember the assassination of Lincoln, but I do remember hearing Hank Snow’s 1962 hit “I’ve Been Everywhere, Man” on AM radio.

If you are a youngster, that’s the C&W classic that has four lists, each with two dozen toponyms, that, by the end of the song, add up to a transcontinental travelogue of 92 different places.

“I’ve been to Pittsburgh, Parkersburg, Gravelbourg, Colorado,
Ellensburg, Rexburg, Vicksburg, El Dorado
Larimore, Admore, Haverstraw, Chatanika
Chaska, Nebraska, Alaska, Opelaka
Baraboo, Waterloo, Kalamazoo, Kansas City
Sioux City, Cedar City, Dodge City, what a pity.”

Imagine this delivered at breakneck speed in the staccato patter of an auctioneer and you’ll get the idea. (If not, you can always watch it on YouTube.)

There is the bravura performance of not running out of breath in singing these place names. Add to that the heavy memory load that “I’ve Been Everywhere, Man” requires, so much more than The Kingsmen’s northwest anthem “Louie Louie,” whose words were unintelligible anyway, even to the FBI.

The singer not forgetting a single town was a spectacular feat of memory, equal to that of the mnemonists who can recite in order the first thousand digits of pi or name all 957 baseball players who’ve played for the Seattle Mariners.

Which is probably why Willie Nelson doesn’t try to sing it.

For highbrows, there is Leporello’s list in the opera Don Giovanni, “Madamina, il catalogo è questo,” with its brag list of Don Juan’s multinational seductions.

“My dear lady, this is a list
of the beauties my master has loved,
a list which I have compiled …
In Italy, six hundred and forty;
in Germany, two hundred and thirty-one;
a hundred in France; in Turkey ninety-one.
In Spain already one thousand and three.”

I mean, wow! We have U.S. Congressmen who don’t even come close to numbers like these!

People have wondered what perversity motivated Don Juan’s serial philandering, but Leporello (who should know) let slip a clue in the next verse: It was all “for the pleasure of adding to the list.”

Somewhere in between country and opera, Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Mikado” offers its own list:

“I’ve got a little list,
of society offenders who might well be underground,
who never would be missed!
There’s the pestilential nuisances who write for autographs —
all people who have flabby hands and irritating laughs —
all children who are up in dates, and floor you with ’em flat —
and all third persons who on spoiling tête-à-têtes insist —
they’d none of ’em be missed!”

There’s just a certain je ne sais quoi about lists.

They are everywhere, and not just in songs.

Since lists proliferate like Himalayan blackberries along a KP fence line, The Other Side can’t resist its own little list of lists, but, for safety’s sake, without bullets:

Scary lists: “10 Medical Terms Doctors Don’t Want You to Know.”
Listicles online: “32 Cool and Colorful Tattoos That Will Inspire You to Get One.”
Movie titles that promise lists: “10 Things I Hate About You” and “Five Easy Pieces.”
Personal lists: Shopping lists, to-do lists, bucket lists, hit lists.
Lists of schoolkids’ bloopers: “This is a picture of an octopus. It has eight testicles” (Kelly, age 6).
Literary lists: Homer’s enumeration of all 1,186 ships that sailed for Troy, the 16 ways Elizabeth Barrett Browning loved Robert in her 43rd Sonnet, and Joyce’s sarcastic list of 87 Irish heroes in Ulysses.
God’s lists: Bible genealogies, the 10 Commandments, Seven Cardinal Sins, and the Seven Heavenly Virtues.
Lists I’m on but wish I weren’t, like Pierce County’s jury duty roster.

Since all lists are potentially infinite, stopping — like driving on ice or eating potato chips — is the hard part. This listophile indulges in one more.

Consider, mystified reader, the bizarre catalogue of animals that, according to the Argentine humorist Jorge Luis Borges, is found in an obscure Chinese encyclopedia. Reading that heterogeneous list famously caused one Parisian intellectual to explode in laughter that “shattered all the familiar landmarks” of his thought. So, if your thought’s landmarks are as fragile as Michel Foucault’s, consider this a trigger alert.

The 14 Chinese animals in Borges’ make-believe encyclopedia are these: “Those that belong to the Emperor, embalmed ones, those that are trained, suckling pigs, mermaids, unreal ones, stray dogs, those included in the present classification, those that tremble as if they were mad, innumerable ones, those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, others, those that have just broken a flower vase, those that from a long way off look like flies.”

Your mental landmarks exploded and patience exhausted, I pause here with et cetera, the perfect way to end but not end a list.

Dan Clouse is an award-winning columnist. He lives in Lakebay.