Brain Pickings

Susan Sontag on Why Lists Appeal to Us, Plus Her Listed Likes and Dislikes

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How lists confer value and guarantee existence.

“The list is the origin of culture,” Umberto Eco famously proclaimed. Whether or not he was right about origin, the list is very much a currency of culture, today’s favorite attention-exploitation device in an information economy of countless listicles and innumerable numerical headlines. But what is it, exactly, that makes lists appeal to us so?

The recently released volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (public library), was among the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012 and has already given us Sontag’s wisdom on writing, boredom, censorship, and aphorisms, her radical vision for remixing education, and her illustrated insights on love and art. In a characteristically self-reflexive entry from August 9, 1967, 34-year-old Sontag considers the allure of lists:

I perceive value, I confer value, I create value, I even create — or guarantee — existence. Hence, my compulsion to make “lists.” The things (Beethoven’s music, movies, business firms) won’t exist unless I signify my interest in them by at least noting down their names.

Nothing exists unless I maintain it (by my interest, or my potential interest). This is an ultimate, mostly subliminal anxiety. Hence, I must remain always, both in principle + actively, interested in everything. Taking all of knowledge as my province.

Nearly a decade later, on February 21, 1977, Sontag constructs an unusual list of her likes and dislikes, on the one hand unordered like a stream-of-consciousness meditation and on the other bearing the cyclical repetition and cadence of poetry:

Things I like: fires, Venice, tequila, sunsets, babies, silent films, heights, coarse salt, top hats, large long-haired dogs, ship models, cinnamon, goose down quilts, pocket watches, the smell of newly mown grass, linen, Bach, Louis XIII furniture, sushi, microscopes, large rooms, ups, boots, drinking water, maple sugar candy.

Things I dislike: sleeping in an apartment alone, cold weather, couples, football games, swimming, anchovies, mustaches, cats, umbrellas, being photographed, the taste of licorice, washing my hair (or having it washed), wearing a wristwatch, giving a lecture, cigars, writing letters, taking showers, Robert Frost, German food.

Things I like: ivory, sweaters, architectural drawings, urinating, pizza (the Roman bread), staying in hotels, paper clips, the color blue, leather belts, making lists, Wagon-Lits, paying bills, caves, watching ice-skating, asking questions, taking taxis, Benin art, green apples, office furniture, Jews, eucalyptus trees, pen knives, aphorisms, hands.

Things I dislike: Television, baked beans, hirsute men, paperback books, standing, card games, dirty or disorderly apartments, flat pillows, being in the sun, Ezra Pound, freckles, violence in movies, having drops put in my eyes, meatloaf, painted nails, suicide, licking envelopes, ketchup, traversins [“bolsters”], nose drops, Coca-Cola, alcoholics, taking photographs.

Things I like: drums, carnations, socks, raw peas, chewing on sugar cane, bridges, Dürer, escalators, hot weather, sturgeon, tall people, deserts, white walls, horses, electric typewriters, cherries, wicker / rattan furniture, sitting cross-legged, stripes, large windows, fresh dill, reading aloud, going to bookstores, under-furnished rooms, dancing, Ariadne auf Naxos.

UPDATE: Reader Lynore Avery illustrates Sontag’s favorite things, reminiscent of Lisa Congdon’s illustrations of Gertrude Stein’s objects:

Complement this with Nabokov’s stream-of-consciousness rant on things he hates. And if you still haven’t treated yourself to As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh, do yourself a favor.

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