Craze for ‘lists about everything’ under attack

Overwhelmed by plans: Do lists help us live life to the full?

From ‘bucket lists’ of things to see and do before you die, to the listicles taking over internet journalism, there’s no escaping rankings and catalogues. Will this trend kill spontaneity?

Which of the seven wonders of the world would you most like to visit? Perhaps you might try to take in all of them during your lifetime. Or would you prefer to compose your own catalogue of must-see marvels? It has certainly become fair game to add new choices to the traditional sights.

The latest attempt to update the list is a suggested top 100 destinations to visit before you die – the perfect travel ‘to-do’ list for someone with 255 days and an estimated £50,000 to spare. The itinerary includes climbing a volcano in Hawaii, floating in the Dead Sea, and seeing a West End musical, along with taking part in the Spanish tomato-throwing festival La Tomatina.

It sounds very jolly. But this list, probably because of its ambitious size, has prompted discussions about more than travel. In the 19th century, the explorer and geographer Alexander von Humboldt advised that Naples, Salzburg and Constantinople (now Istanbul) were the only three cities really worth a trip. Now we seem to be obsessed with ticking off destinations all over the globe.

From the baby list that invites friends and relations to buy approved gifts at birth, to the so-called ‘bucket list’ of things to do and see before you die, it seems our lives are becoming overwhelmed by rankings and inventories.

In the world of journalism, the traditional article analysing new developments and carrying through an argument is being swamped by the listicle: ranking information in bite size, numbered chunks suitable for the ‘news snacking’ appetites of internet readers.

Is this healthy? Cataloguing experience seems to be a fundamental human urge. As one witty recent listicle about listicles pointed out, the whole of Judaeo-Christian culture and law is based on a list written by God, the Ten Commandments.

‘How depressing!’ others retort. Do you really want to reduce your existence to a ‘to-do list’? What would happen to the magical impromptu meetings that can enrich an ordinary day, or the delightful accidental knowledge you acquire by meandering through life with an open mind?

Be careful, they counsel, to leave time amid your carefully planned adventures and achievements for the haphazard, everyday discoveries you can make close to home.


But might something valuable be lost along the way?

Some will ask what is wrong with making a list of rules or a targets to give your ambitions a structure: by doing so, you might focus your thoughts and have a better chance of achieving what you would like or even need to.

You Decide

  1. Should your ambitions be all about places to go and things to see?
  2. ‘Nothing profound can ever be expressed in a list.’ Do you agree?


  1. Make a list of places you would like to visit: they can be far afield or in your own country.
  2. Creative project: make a picture or write a song or poem about a journey.

Some People Say...

“Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.’John Lennon”

What do you think?

Q & A

What a fuss about nothing.
Aha, perhaps you are a fan of lists. And of listicles. Buzzfeed, a website devoted entirely to lists, and the magazines Shortlist and Stylist have been phenomenally successful, so you are far from alone. It is worth noticing what this might be squeezing out of our shortened attention spans, though.
Like what?
Well, you could try sending in a piece of schoolwork in the form of a list. But you would very probably find it difficult to carry an argument or analyse your subject in this form. But it’s a great way of transmitting information in a memorably way - look out for things you read that have numbered points or bullet points: are they easier to digest and remember? You might need to use that trick with your own writing some day.

Word Watch

Seven wonders
The wonders of the Ancient World included the pyramids, the hanging gardens of Babylon, and the colossus of Rhodes. Subsequent lists have included the Colosseum in Rome, the Taj Mahal in India and the Great Wall of China.
Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) is best known for the volumes he published about his scientific trips to explore Central and South America. He is credited with the phrase ‘See Naples and die.’
A new coinage, this acronym stands for You Only Live Once.

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