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Unpacking lists

I’ve been suffering lately from a debilitating case of wanderlust. All my friends keep flaunting summer vacation selfies on Facebook, while I wallow in the morass of an endless home renovation. Online travel magazines are my only escape. Late at night I surf Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast, and AFAR among others. Each one is chock-full of lists and rankings of places, places I’d much rather be than New Orleans in July. They’ve got “The Best Street Food Cities in the World,” “9 Hotels for the Aspiring Artist,” “10 Must-See Houses Designed by Master Architect Frank Lloyd Wright,” “33 Brilliant Ways to Actually Use Your Travel Photos,” and “The 8 Worst Things You Can Do at Starbucks, According to Baristas.” There’s an endless parade of superlatives: most, greatest, tastiest, remotest, manliest and so on. When I finally settle on a destination I can’t go to, I visit Trip Advisor to compare reviews from people who have. It’s all very cathartic.

When I mentioned one of these wanderlust lists to a friend of mine who teaches high school English, she fired back, “I loathe &%$# lists! They’re journalistic copouts – literary abominations! A good story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, a protagonist, a conflict and a resolution, not &%$# bullets and numbers for crying out loudly!”

I complimented her on using the adverb form of “loud,” and then asked, “So, what are your top 10 reasons for disliking lists?”

Author’s Note: After our conversation, I immediately opened up my Notes app and jotted down a list of ideas for this article.

A List of Reasons to Like Lists

Travel magazines are not the only publications guilty of these “literary abominations.” Lists and rankings are, as my teacher friend likes to say, “&%$# ubiquitous!” US News and World Reports ranks colleges and other things, Time Magazine has its “100 Most Influential People,” Forbes ranks the “400 Richest Americans,” ESPN does Power Rankings for just about every sport, Consumer Reports has its “unbiased” ratings, and even the esteemed New York Times lists its weekly “Best Sellers.”

Here in New Orleans, we are not immune to craze. Gambit alone has its “I-10,” “Winnas and Loozas,” “40 Under 40” and annual “Best of” list. Even the publisher of this piece tracks hits and “likes,” and puts articles (probably not this one) on a “trending” list.

Unlike my highbrow friend, I like lists. I actually think they’re embedded in our DNA. Our earliest ancestors most likely painted them on cave walls. They would have their “Best Ways to BBQ Wooly Mammoth," "Top Ten Tips to Avoid Being Devoured by a Saber-Toothed Cat," and "101 Gluten-Free Ideas for This Summer’s Gathering Season.” Like dogs rolling in poo, we can’t resist the smelly allure of lists.

So, with that said, here are my Top 10 Reasons Why I Like Lists:

  1. They’re easy (Yes, it might be a literary copout, but writers have deadlines too.)
  2. They’re fun (Remember David Letterman’s Top 10 Lists?)
  3. They’re useful (see your own to-do list)
  4. They’re revealing (“So, if you were marooned on a desert island with only 10 albums, what would they be?”)
  5. They’re a good conversation starter (How many disastrous dates or family dinners have been saved by a “What’s your favorite...” question?)
  6. They’re Quantifiable (Americans are obsessed with data; lists and rankings are Excel compatible.)
  7. They’re thought-provoking (“Who was the better general: Hannibal or Scipio Africanus? Grant or Lee? Monty or Rommel?”)
  8. They’re a source of pride. (According to Travel + Leisure, New Orleans is the 7th best city in the world! Yeah you right!)
  9. They’re endlessly debatable (A friend and I have been debating Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” for, well, practically all time!)
  10. They’re constantly changing (I just added Sapiens to my list of favorite works of nonfiction; and, if I ever travel again, I’m definitely going to a destination on the UNESCO World Heritage List.)

A Deeper Dive

I recently read Charles C. Mann’s book, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. I told a friend that the “discovery” of the Americas and the subsequent Columbian Exchange was undoubtedly the greatest turning point in human history. “Au contraire,” he said, “Constantine the Great’s conversion to Christianity was far more significant.” For the next three hours, we slugged it out like Ali and Frazier in Madison Square Garden.

A list is not just a list; it’s foreplay for mental masturbation. It’s not only an excuse to dredge up old fun facts from your middle school social studies class; it’s also a springboard to a much deeper dive.

I learned this lesson while teaching high school history. As a conversation starter, I once asked a group of students to rank the greatest inventions of all time? At the top of their list were the wheel, the printing press and the iPhone. “So, how did the Inca create one of the world’s greatest empires without the benefit of the wheel?” I asked. “Gutenberg’s press may have put Bibles in the hands of the masses, but it also gave them Mein Kampf,” I said. And, “A high school student was texting while driving the other day, and flew off the road…”

The ensuing conversation was anything but dull. My young historians went at it like Lincoln and Douglas in 1858. Without my prompting, they employed the Socratic method; they practiced 21st century skills like critical thinking and creativity without even knowing it; and they used previous knowledge for something other than a multiple guess test. And, when the bell rang, they didn’t want to leave!

In the trivial world of lists, it’s the follow-up questions that deliver the highest ranked rewards.

A colleague of mine is a millennial. Being from a different generation, he has his own, rather annoying, lexicon. One of his favorite terms is, “unpack.” He says things like, “To be on fleek, we’ll have to unpack the meeting,” or “We really need to be more intentional about unpacking this situation. The struggle is real.”

The other day, he gave me a list of school improvement ideas. I said, “Great, now lets unpack them…”


Looking for a good book to read this summer? Here are my current 100 favorite works of fiction and nonfiction (in alphabetical order with my top 10 in bold). The criteria were simple: 1) I had to have read them, 2) I had to have liked them and 3) they had to have influenced me in some way, shape or form. So, what’s on your list?


Folwell is an educator, artist and compiler of lists. He can be reached at fldunbar@icloud.com


Folwell Dunbar is a New Orleans educator, artist and survivor of many things, from roaches to German U-boats and heartbreak. He is putting together a collection of these short stories and survival tales called He Falls Well (his name is pronounced “fall well”). NolaVie is honored to preview some of those stories here. Email him at fldunbar@me.com.