Not another top 10 list

Before finally sitting down to write about the inanity of end-of-year top 10 lists, I spent a long time trying to think of ways to make the column itself a top 10 list. Like every writer who works on deadline, I didn’t want to expend too much effort this week. I wanted a column I could type with two fingers on one hand while writing holiday cards (yes, I’m still doing that) with the other. I wanted a topic that required the use of 3% of my brain as opposed to the usual 7% -- my estimate, based on that adage that humans only ever use 10% (scientists say we use more, but I say, not necessarily newspaper columnists).

The whole prospect, of course, is tantamount to a snake eating its tail (and doing a very uninteresting job of it to boot). Top 10 lists are inane precisely because they exist to give columnists and editors and television news producers a chance to go cross-country skiing, or to drink too much spiked eggnog, or just to compensate their families for their poor behavior during the rest of the year, when they spend most dinners in zombie-like silence trying to tease out an argument about healthcare or TARP funding or Lady Gaga or some other confounding subject. In other words, top 10 lists aren’t about the message; they’re about the messenger. And the messenger’s vacation.

But since this particular messenger is not on vacation, let me devote some complete paragraphs to the roundups I’ve stumbled upon over the last few weeks.

There were, of course, the usual suspects: top 10 movies, top 10 songs, top 10 books, top 10 sports moments, top 10 technology trends and top 10 most intriguing people. Foreign Policy magazine offered up the 10 worst predictions for 2009 (that swine flu would infect up to half the U.S. population; that an energy bill would be on the president’s desk by the end of the year).

A website called provides ever-helpful lists like top 10 weird colors you’ve never heard of (gamboge, xanadu), and something called the National Anxiety Center has cooked up a roster of top 10 anxieties for 2010. These run the gamut from “the economy” to “education” to “American culture,” the “increasing vulgarity” of which, writes the center’s founder, Alan Caruba, “remains a concern for many.”

But it’s not all bad. “The good news,” Caruba adds, “is that more Americans are no longer concerned about global warming and carbon dioxide as they become aware that the claims justifying these fears are based on deliberately falsified computer models. . . . “

Tell that to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which released a list of the top 10 nonhuman species most threatened by global warming. Not only are these critters in trouble, a lot of them are darn cute: koalas, emperor penguins, arctic foxes. But don’t fret too much; there are about as many “10 ways to fight global warming” lists floating around as there are Priuses parked at the nation’s Whole Foods markets. After all, it just isn’t New Year’s if you’re not reading guilt-inducing articles about resolutions involving compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Though we know why writers resort to these “listicles” (yes, that’s what they’re called; and you thought “charticle” was bad), readers play a role in all the nonsense as well. They appear to actually like top 10s. It’s not just that they’re easy to read; it’s that the boldfaced type, the accompanying photos and all those bullet points make it practically impossible not to read them.

But something deeper may be at work. We humans love to rank things, to define hierarchies, to exercise what little control we have over our lives by cataloging our goals, our possessions, the contents of any given day. Lists, Italian novelist Umberto Eco said late last year in the German magazine Der Spiegel, “are cultural achievements in their own right. . . . The list doesn’t destroy culture; it creates it.”

That was the gist of my argument when I was 11 years old and insisted on spending all of New Year’s Eve listening to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 countdown because it seemed absolutely crucial to find out the No. 1 pop single of 1981.

The answer, “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes, not only satisfied my inexplicably burning curiosity but seemed, in my pre-pubescent, radio-obsessed mind, to define the entire year. It was as if 1981 itself had Bette Davis eyes. There was a tiny bit of poetry in that, a bit of relief in a year that saw assassination attempts on the president and the pope, not to mention plenty of carnage elsewhere. And we have a list to thank.

So even though I suspect 2009’s No. 1 song might be by Lady Gaga, there’s a part of me that’s as grateful for top 10 lists as I am irritated by them. After all, one of these days I might actually take a vacation. You’ll know when you see the bullet points.