Writing lists

In the beginning was the list.

It is very probable that writing was invented for making lists. For all the things we can write today, this thought is disconcerting. It gets worse. It was invented for making lists for use in admin.

Lists help by extending memory. Written lists become memory blocks. This and this and this and this, one after another, one under the other. Before comma separated values there were items. And items were in fact adverbs, ‘item’ being the Latin word for ‘similarly’ – the bullet point at the start of an itemized line. Similarly point 2, likewise point 3 on the agenda. Let’s move on.

A list moves down on the page and forward in time. We’ve replaced ‘item’ with dash, then with the bullet point and with the number. A list is a sequence moving through time. An argument is also a sequence. A biography is also a sequence. A story is also a sequence. Most writing in sequential, and we read it point by point, line by line, going down. Scholars have observed that while scripts can be from left to right, from right to left, from left to right and right to left, and always downward on the page, there is no recorded script where the sequence is upward-moving. We unravel the thread by scrolling down.

All writing is list-writing. Lists differ. Some are shopping lists, other are character or idea developments over tens of pages. Once we see that writing is all about recording lists, we can go back to the origin of writing.

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