Why we make lists

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to endless list-making and tally-counting. History shows us that this is a fundamental human need.

Leaf from an illustrated history of writing published in 1892. It depicts Incan knotted messages (quipus) in Peru. Credit: Hulton Archive

500, 600, 1,000 deaths per day. During the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in Europe, the spectacle of mounting death tallies became a daily ritual. It also disclosed a picture of civic function, or perhaps more accurately, a picture of civic dysfunction. The UK, France, Italy and Spain and some US states, especially New York, performed badly. Some countries, such as the Czech Republic and Germany, were said to have done well in keeping death tallies low; the Asian democracies, such as South Korea, had hardly any Covid deaths.

Nine months on, many countries are again recording significant mortality in excess to what would have been expected in a normal year – the culprit, Covid-19, this time making its inexorable progress through Europe at the height of its winter. In the UK, there is even a mutant variant to contend with, said to be even more transmissible than its cousin, the 2020 ‘legacy’ SARS-CoV-2 virus. Lawrence Freedman observed in EI last summer that our pandemic fits with Hippocrates’s working definition of ‘imperfect crisis’ where ‘even if the patient emerged in an improved condition there was a possibility of a relapse into an even more dangerous condition.’

We are a species of record keepers. List-making is as old as human civilisation. The Incas used coloured knotted strings, called khipus, to record transactions. The Egyptians were notable manufacturers of inscriptions and clay tablets. The walls of their temples and their palaces are covered in endless lists. Typical subjects range from the mundane, X vessels of wine, to the geopolitical: How many slaves did the Pharaoh procure in his latest expedition? This is where list-making meets the stuff of historical inquiry.

The khipus were put to just as expansive uses. In 1609, Garcilaso de la Vega, son of an Inca princess and a Spanish conquistador, noted that the Incas ‘recorded on knots everything that could be counted, even mentioning battles and fights, all the embassies that had come to visit the Inca, and all the speeches and arguments.’ The broader imaginative possibilities of list-making have even made their way into modern fiction. Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard often slips into list-argot. Here’s the start of his list of childhood cassette tapes, even capitalised in the text for the sake of authenticity: ‘BOWIE – HUNKY DORY, LED ZEPPELIN – 1. TALKING HEADS – 77. THE CHAMELEONS – SCRIPT OF THE BRIDGE…’.

Lists, and their numerical cousin, tallies, perform a dual function – they portend simply to inscribe what has happened, ‘everything that could be counted’, but they also preserve a trace of the material that was thought to be worth memorialising. Knausgaard tells how his cassette tapes were home-made, adorned by his ‘own childish capitals on the spines’.

Our modern calamities, especially the conflicts that engulfed Europe and then the world in the early 20th century, may not have been so very different in scale to the terrors of the Spanish conquest of the Americas or the Thirty Year’s War, but never have calamities been so comprehensively ‘listified’. The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme bears the names of more than 72,000 officers who died in that terrible phase of the First World War.

The scale of First World War memorials like Thiepval, which, at 45 metres high and 10 million bricks, dwarfs the forest trees around it. The Menin Gate at Ypres, another enormous fortress-like monument, was satirised by the English poet Siegfried Sassoon: ‘Here was the world’s worst wound. And here with pride / ‘Their name liveth for ever’, the Gateway claims. Was ever an immolation so belied / as these intolerably nameless names?’

Does our appetite for memorialisation not cast us back to the present and away from the past? What do the war dead really know of all those millions of bricks? Solipsism is a luxury of the living. Soldiers themselves have long understood that truth. In Homer’s Iliad, Achilles, the best fighter on either side, tells the Trojan Lycaon, who he has run to ground and is about to kill: ‘You too, my friend, must die… a goddess bore me, yet death and remorseless fate await me too.’ Soldiers know only this of the dead – that soon they will join them.

In the last few weeks, there have been calls in the European media for  governments to make public a new list – that is daily figures of vaccinations given. Countries are said to be doing well on the basis of reported numbers of vaccinations – Israel has leapt ahead in the vaccination stakes. We are in a public health crisis so it is unsurprising that the moral currency of the pandemic is traded in lives lost vs lives saved.

Lists retain their curious pathos. We have always attempted to make tangible even in the most rudimentary of materials – string, clay, stone walls – the people we have known, the places we have seen. But we cannot really know those ‘intolerably nameless names’, those 500, 600, 1,000 lives.


Alastair Benn