A Comment on How Lists Shape the Mind

A Comment on How Lists Shape the Mind

I love lists. Lists are important; they tell you exactly what you need to get done, and then maybe you’ll pat yourself on the back after checking off a task. They help you out when you’re grocery shopping or when you’re idly skimming through your newsfeed. Tables of contents, glossaries, and indexes wouldn’t exist without them. And like everything else, lists can be used to promote, deliberately or not, certain ideas and attitudes.

Growing up loving books, I’ve always wanted to finish a “100 books to read before you die” list (still pending), for a variety of reasons that range from fueling my consumption for words, to wanting to be seen as “well-read,” (an issue for another day) to something as banal as “for the sake of completion.” And typically, these lists contain the usual suspects: 1984, Lolita, The Great Gatsby, Ulysses…etcetera. Many of these works fall under what we know in “Western” literature as the “classics,” and it’s likely that we would have been exposed to at least some of these titles through society and pop culture (like these lists), and/or through our educational system. Long story short, the existences of these texts are well-known and elevated to us.

I’ve recently come across this piece by Rebecca Solnit, author of Men Explain Things To Me, where she critiques an Esquire book list titled “The 80 Best Books Every Man Should Read.” It’s always interesting when anything is packaged and marketed to a specific group of people: what kind of special knowledge is floating around in these 80 works that is such a great fit for the minds of (only, in this case) men? The caption for Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is, “A lesson in manhood: Even when you’re damned, you press on.” Moving through the list, I remember some of the romanticism and the suspension of disbelief that went along well with these stories, but the big problem is how this list is framed.

At university here, we’re often told that an important skill to take away from post-secondary education is, above all, the ability to think critically. For a long time, this struck me as a somewhat dismissive, scapegoat-ish excuse to justify the money we invest in institutional education. Recently, however, perhaps due to years of thought digestion, I’ve been dwelling more on how my modes of thinking have evolved and changed since my first year. As Solnit points out in her post, “a book without women is often said to be about humanity but a book with women in the foreground is a woman’s book.” Male protagonists in literature are already the norm, so a list that is framed to target men specifically offers a strong suggestion of how masculine identities are taught through the list’s works. I feel that we should be free to read what we want, and free to add ideas to the melting pot of our minds, but I think it’s also important to be aware of how, for example, potentially harmful perceptions of women and gender binaries may exist in literature that is geared as being “for men.”

At the end of the day, what is most important, I believe, is to possess the willingness to read, and the willingness to learn—whether you’re consuming books, or blog posts (heh), or participating in a dialogue that allows for growth.

By Eliza Chan