Why are we so obsessed with making lists? It is this question that Umberto Eco, the philosopher, medievalist and writer best-known for ‘The Name of the Rose’, sets out to answer in his latest piece of non-fiction.
The result is a dazzling, sometimes dizzying, tour through two millennia of tables, lists and categories, supported by dozens of examples from literature and real life, and lavishly illustrated with art that draws on the power of lists (think Breughel’s densely populated townscapes, or Bosch’s chaotic visions of hell).
The examples Eco cites can be comic, as in Rabelais’s setting out of dozens of materials with which to wipe one’s backside (the neck of a goose being the best, apparently); or serious, as when the minutely detailed listing of a nineteenth-century abattoir’s inner workings well conveys their panic, chaos and cruelty.
Eco’s point is that lists do not always impose order on the world, as we might think. Just as often, they perversely emphasise, through their very limitedness, the almost unimaginable vastness of everything outside their field, the huge scope of life. They can also express delight in abundance, exuberance or excess.
But this insight is never properly developed, partly because ‘The Infinity of Lists’ is more a beautifully illustrated essay than a full-length book, and partly because Eco often revels in the richness of his lists rather than dig deeper into them. The overall impression is of a brilliant mind amusing itself, of scintillation rather than penetration – of, ultimately, a great deal of learning being used to produce a very superior coffee table book.
First published in Time Out