Lists, Lists, Lists! And Other End-of-Decade Obsessions

Every year, around the same time, the listing begins. Critics (both professional and not) try to sum up the period of time that’s ending, to put a year’s messy output in some perspective before our memories get in the way and complicate things.

This whittling down of what matters is hardly a new ritual. It’s a longstanding tradition to summarize a set period of time, condense it into a highlight reel. Some things about the resulting lists are predictable: certain items are widely championed, others controversially left out; there are lists that seem designed to confirm the status quo along with those that relish being contrary. And the backlash always appears right on cue.

At least people have started having a little more fun with it in recent years. Tired of simply declaring the best of inevitable categories like movies, books, and TV (though those aren’t going anywhere), they’ve branched out into best cover songs, best “casual games” (whatever that means) and a whole host of analogous “worsts,” like Rotten Tomatoes’ compendium of worst reviewed movies and the Chicago Tribune’s worst dining trends. The result has been, in some respects, a less reductive attitude to the time we’re leaving behind, but also one that’s just more muddied, with everyone weighing in about tiny details and events. Like if they don’t do it now, the chance is gone forever.

Sure, these lists provide a sort of service: the pile of stuff is just so overwhelming, and we have an interest in knowing what’s worth pulling out and paying attention to. At their best—instead of aiming at some kind cultural consensus, or just burnishing egos—they’re an opportunity to point people in the direction of books, movies, and music they might otherwise have missed. This can be true whether it’s something already widely acknowledged to be great, or something less hyped. But the glut of lists is also numbing.

This year has been even more extreme, since we have not just a single year to account for, but an entire decade. (And yes, technically the decade doesn’t end till a year from now, but all anyone cares about is having a nice round number, and the more important thing is really to bookend the hysteria that we last faced ten years ago on the eve of 2000.) The task started early: Pitchfork launched its music retrospective over the summer, while The Millions started considering the millennium’s best books as early as September.

New York magazine’s “Best of the 00’s” issue was a standout, with thoughtful essays (and illustrations of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” and a Kindle set on a pedestal, behind glass) capped by “The Stick List,” which the editors defined as “the television programs, books, movies, art, architecture, plays, and pop albums that we’ll still be talking about in ten years” (a more practical rationale than many). The issue also featured a pretty amazing decade-spanning essay by Michael Hirschorn and, dear to my heart, a gallery of things made obsolete in this decade.

The annual countdown—and the unnervingly enthusiastic not-quite-post-mortem for the decade—seems to be a way of giving ourselves permission to move on, offering the assurance of having tied things up with a nice tidy bow (or really, multiple bows). I’m ambivalent about it: I like looking back and remembering the highs and lows, and it’s fun to be reminded of certain things that unfolded in the past ten years. But I’m a little wary of our compulsion to get everything in place, to be decisive before we move onto the next set of events and questions.

Trying to name the 00’s last month (another recent, widespread preoccupation), David Segal wrote, “We lack the critical distance that only time affords to sort through the lasting significance of the recent past.” He went on to paraphrase former poet laureate Billy Collins (not-so-coincidentally, author of a poem titled “Nostalgia”), who told Segal that “it will take many years to name the ’00s because it will take many years to figure out what we feel that we lost during that period, and therefore what to feel sentimental or wistful about.” I’m not sure it’s that simple. Sure, we know that distance matters. We expect that time will change things. But increasingly, we want to circumvent it. We want instant memories, quick judgments, the equivalent of a digital snapshot to keep and take for granted. We don’t need much time or distance at all before the wistfulness first kicks in; nostalgia starts to percolate seconds after the end of the moment in question.Whether accurately or not, we’re anxious to decide how important something was right after it happens.

And so these lists can seem like attempts to preempt the way time adjusts our perspective, a way to claim ultimate authority in the moment and deny that our opinions and understandings will change in any meaningful way. But there’s no point pretending that lists are anything but time capsules. We may congratulate ourselves if our top picks end up having real staying power, but no matter what we do, it’ll all look different a few years from now.

Aside from all of this, though, the lists are just a welcome distraction. They fill the end-of-year news hole, give us something entertaining to read alongside the latest grim economic news and the infuriating health care “debate.” Those things are harder to squeeze into a top ten. “[T]he first 10 years of this century will very likely go down as the most dispiriting and disillusioning decade Americans have lived through in the post–World War II era,” Andy Serwer wrote in Time Magazine’s cover story declaring this  “The Decade From Hell.” “Call it whatever you want—just give thanks that it is nearly over.” If only.

Eryn Loeb has written for the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Salon, Bookforum, the L Magazine, and Bitch Magazine, among other publications, and ...read more

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