Your Grocery List is Your History

Course Writing Associate, Charlie Kimball ’18, examines the rhetorical implications of the list.

We categorize language, our primary means of communication, as living or dead. The lifespan of a language is dependent on a body of people who speak and refine it over time. I think that we interact with writing in a similar way. Writing is dead to us if it cannot acquire new meaning and adapt to new information, both conflicting and complimentary. Living writing, on the other hand, is artistic, inspires introspection and evolves over time. When talking about living writing forms—novels, poetry, creative nonfiction, diaries etc.—we feel compelled to mention the vividness we sense. Living writing is able to accomplish this because it chooses to embody and indirectly represent messages, encouraging readers to reach different conclusions by varied means. Dead writing takes form in explicit modes of communication. It prioritizes its message, selecting the most direct route to expression. Because of its rigidity, dead writing forms, such as memos, briefs, reports, news articles, reviews and lists, reject new information and crumble when challenged. I will explore the list to question the way we interact and overlook the dead writing forms. Comparing two different types of lists, the personal list and the collective list, I argue that our interactions with dead writing, both as writers and readers, are meaningful opportunities to interact with parts of ourselves that living writing ignores.


As with all dead writing, the list has an explicit goal. Both collective and personal lists immobilize their contents for the benefit of the reader and writer. We order our lists based on truths, whether personal or empirical. We do not put food on a personal grocery list if we do not want to buy it. The same goes for collective lists; an animal cannot be on the endangered species list without first being proven endangered. The list holds a claim, an organizational impulse or idea, but does not have means to defend that claim.

Lists are also exhaustive, eclipsing our internal memory. We immobilize our truths so that we may continually reference and externalize them. These two roles, as records of and testaments to their organizational strategies, are not equally prioritized depending on the type of list. In observing the value systems of each list, strengths and weaknesses in both arise.

With the personal list, the goal is organizational clarity, not empirical truth. This is evident in the lack of organizational backing we find in personal lists. Someone may write down a to-do list for the weekend but rarely will they include a section to justify their selection. The absence of organizational desire in personal lists does not mean the author is mindlessly piecing ideas together. Authors justify their choices internally and frequently revise their lists, making them tumultuous organizational bodies. We find ourselves adding and scratching plans off our to-do lists, removing items from our grocery list and inevitably adding new plans as more thoughts come to us.

What the personal list lacks in permanence it makes up in organizational usefulness. In a segment of BBC’s The Why Factor, a self-described compulsive list maker noted the sense of calm that came from “being able to write things down that used to be in my head”.[1] We find joy in making personal lists because they stabilize us. Even the most focused of us experience the chaos of new ideas. Stability also highlights the main connection between the personal list and collective list: both prompt their users to take action. There is a kind of tangibility granted to the contents on the lists we make. Even if we list only potential actions, our goals for the next year or deadlines for a project, we are declaring that these are the correct options for us to consider. Whereas the individual list inspires action from the writer the collective list begs action from its readership.

Collective lists are characterized by the constant scrutiny they face. A collective list is always a claim; these are the most important foods to eat; these are the best point-guards in the NBA draft; these are the six chords you need to play jazz.[2] Individuals or groups compile evidence for collective lists and then publish them to share their organizational ideas. A collective list is a testament to the evidence gathering, scrutiny and breadth that makes up a resilient organizational strategy. If we accept a collective list, we can share and internalize its information and organizational implication. Similarly, when we disagree with poorly constructed collective lists, such as Thought Catalogue’s “25 Ways to Ruin Your Life by 25,” the list becomes momentarily void because it does not contain the means to defend itself. Only an external actor can then prove the list’s validity.

Collective lists require immobility to survive. Yet, even the most convincing collective lists occasionally change when faced with new evidence. An author must be willing to revise some of its contents in order for it to remain relevant. These are never comfortable moments for collective lists. We cannot rely on a collective list if it requires too much revision—either the content is too tumultuous in its current form or the organizational strategy proves unfounded.

Comparing the two, the personal list is obviously the less functional. It is not a valuable testament to its organizational strategy because it is more frequently revised. We do not scrutinize our personal lists the way we do other forms of dead writing. Also, unlike the collective list, the personal list does not exhaust our organizational capacity because we create the impulse for such constant revision; we memorize our personal lists, they do not memorize us. Why then is the personal list so valuable? Among dead writing, which aims to fossilize an idea, the personal list is inadequate. Yet, the personal list is strikingly resilient, never shying from inaccuracy like the collective list. It does not acquire new meaning—the to-do list never changes in nature—but it accepts constant, drastic revision. Unlike the collective list, changing the contents on a personal list does not put the organizational strategy at risk. Our lists resemble us—when we experience drastic shifts our lists need to change as well. Becoming a vegetarian does not require one to rethink the value of a grocery list. Personal lists show us that progress is not only catalyzed by creativity and exploration, but also by organization. Believing that we can organize our lives means we must constantly test our beliefs and drive towards more realized version of ourselves.

[1] Williams, Mike. “BBC World Service – The Why Factor, Why Do We Make Lists?” BBC News. BBC, 25 Dec. 2016. Web. 21 Feb. 2017.

[2] Glenrosejazz. “Play Jazz with Just Six Chords – Gateway to Jazz Guitar.” YouTube. YouTube, 22 Dec. 2010. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.


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