Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#14, September 10, 1998


by Marylaine Block

What a year this has been lists. We’ve had the Modern Library Board’s list of the hundred best novels since 1900 (which apparently stopped at 1970). The American Film Institute named its top 100 movies, VH-1 did its top 100 rock ‘n’ roll artists of all time (e.g., since 1954), and Entertainment Weekly did a tongue-in-cheek list of the best lists. At the upcoming Emmy Awards ceremony we will get to see the top ten moments in television history.

What is it about making lists that so appeals to us? It’s hardly a new phenomenon — Dante’s Inferno may be read as a list of sins, in order of deadliness, and in the middle ages the Catholic Church created its reverse top 100 list, the Index of Banned Books.

I think part of the appeal is that making lists is a wonderful parlor game. Arguing about the relative merits of King Kong and Singing in the Rain, or the Beatles and Pink Floyd, can not only break the ice on a first date, but also help reveal if you are soulmates.

To make lists is to say what matters when you judge human performance. In listing the greatest baseball players, you are stating what you value in a player —- is it the hustle of Pete Rose, the dazzle of McGwire’s power hitting, the endurance and unassuming day by day reliability of Cal Ripken, Jr. or something else altogether?

Sports are in some ways easy, because of the numbers -- even if you’d never seen Michael Jordan play, you’d put him at the top of your list of greats on statistics alone. People might quarrel about which statistics matter most, but the numbers do provide several objective measure of performance.

For art and literature and music, there are no such measures. What matters with the humanities is how the work affects you personally -- someone who likes Georgia O’Keeffe may not be greatly moved by The Last Supper.

Still, even for the arts there are some common analytical measures:

But art also has the capacity to appeal to your senses and emotions. You may value it because you read it, saw it, heard it, and said, “That’s my life they’re talking about.” That’s how many people responded to Good Morning, Vietnam, or A Doll’s House.

You may value it because of intense emotional or physical reactions to it —- the feeling of being gutpunched by the horrific images in Picasso’s Guernica, of being compelled to dance by “Staying Alive,” or being cheered by the ditsy blissfulness of the Talking Heads’ “And She Was.”

We may love a work of art for something entirely outside it. The play you treasure most of all might be the one you had the lead in when you were in high school.

Of course, even when you agree in advance what standards to judge by, you still won’t come up with the same top 100, or even the same top 10, because people who love Garth Brooks and people who love Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine aren’t even talking about the same species.

It’s a parlor game that can bring back little pieces of our past to us —- perhaps you fell in love while that music played in the background, or spent hours in a coffeehouse after that movie, talking it over.

Perhaps the pleasure we take in making lists has nothing to do with our results, and everything to do with what we found out about each other, and ourselves, in the process.

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