The Infinity of Lists: An Illustrated Essay

By Umberto Eco

Translated by Alastair McEwen

(Rizzoli, 408 pp., $45)

The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right

By Atul Gawande

(Metropolitan Books, 209 pp., $24.50)

“Please direct your attention to the front of the cabin where the flight attendants are demonstrating safety procedures ... in the event of a water landing ... doors to manual, and cross-check.” And inside the cockpit, away from our benumbed ears, the pilot and copilot go through a series of additional checklists before pushing back from the gate, before starting the engines, before beginning the takeoff roll.

The story of where these aviation checklists came from is something that interested Atul Gawande. As a surgeon interested in his--and his profession’s--ability to heal and to do no harm, Gawande became fascinated with the steps taken by other complex professions to reduce myriad possible dangers via list-making. One of the problems faced by the surgeon is the need to deal with so many possible outcomes, all of which unfold very quickly and with serious long-lasting consequences. Some of the stories he tells of the “saves,” as well as the losses, bear directly on this plotting of complexity against time.

Gawande is too smart to believe that a checklist can reduce that complexity. Instead, in telling example after telling example, he shows how lists can eliminate the stupid errors that are made not because things are complex, but because while focusing on the complex things we fallible humans often screw up the obvious ones: not sterilizing a medical instrument, not knowing a patient’s history, leaving instruments where they do not belong--all the terribly familiar nightmares. What the list does so effectively is to routinize certain processes so as to free up what power of concentration finite humans can muster to deal with the multiplicity of possible unfolding medical realities.

Gawande, the man of action, is all about how the list can reduce the infinitude of possibility to the possibility of finitude. Umberto Eco’s new book is about the way in which the finitude of a list can remind us of the possibility of infinitude. Of the two approaches, the former may save lives, and may be addressed in a concise, accessible format--it’s about finitude, after all--whereas the latter can only make life richer, without ever being possibly encompassed, and certainly not between covers. Gawande’s philosophy of the list already seems to have won over the World Health Organization to global surgical checklists. But a phenomenology of the list? Only Eco would try this. And yet both agree, in their different ways, that the list is a point of contact between the human and the infinite.


Gawande and Eco understand that “there are more things in heaven and earth ... than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” But where Gawande’s response to that limit is to call a meeting--he presents this in terms of mandated communications between co-workers--Eco would send us to the museum. (This book was written to accompany an exhibition that he curated at the Louvre last winter.) There are, Eco tells us, two basic ways that artists have tried to make sense of the infinitude of the world. The first is to try and capture its essence; the second is to list as many parts of that whole as possible. Gawande’s checklist almost fits the second category, but not quite.

Eco’s argument is inspired by two passages from Homer’s Iliad. In his description of the shield of Achilles, Homer creates, according to Eco, the perfect form. On this shield, Hephaestus managed to depict the earth and the heavenly bodies, and on the earth two cities full of people going about their all-too-human existence. It is complete in itself. Homer could create such a form because he knew this world. But there are many instances, Eco observes, where “we cannot provide a definition by essence and so, to be able to talk about it, to make it comprehensible or in some way perceivable, we list its properties.”

This, he explains, is what Homer did when wishing to convey the scale of the Greek expeditionary force. Lacking words, he decided instead to list; and finding the list of individuals impossibly large, he instead listed the captains of the army and their ships. This, too, proved an enormous undertaking--Homer devotes 350 verses to this catalogue--and so conveys to readers the size of the Greek force at Troy. And it is the very limitation of the list, compared to the form, which points us toward the infinite. The catalogue is meant to remind us of what cannot be grasped; the checklist, of what can be grasped.

If Homer presented Eco with the aesthetic alternatives, Kant seems to have provided him with his analytical framework. Kant argues that there are two ways of experiencing infinity. The encounter that can so overwhelm our senses and imagination as to leave us with a feeling of the infinite may nevertheless be rendered aesthetically by the description of a single star, person, or flower. But that same feeling of infinity may also be represented by something approximating the felt infinity: the starry sky by many, many, many stars. Even “a partial list of all the stars in the universe in some way wishes to make us think of this objective infinity,” Eco writes. This is the analytical core of his project.

And yet, as stunning as this claim may be, one has a slightly unsettled feeling about all this. First, though ostensibly linked to an art exhibition, Eco’s argument is born from texts and articulated by way of textual examples. His images illustrate but they do not conceptualize, and they certainly do not argue. At a push, Eco’s entire argument could be presented without a single illustration. It did not have to be this way. One suspects, even after plowing through this book, that the “visual list” still has not met its proper theorist.

And since Eco is so invested in the infinity of some lists, he needs to separate them sharply from those others that he calls “practical,” which denote specific objects, such as the shopping list, the top ten restaurants, even the museum catalogue. His chief example of this type of list--it gave the name to his show at the Louvre--is Leporello’s famous catalogue of Don Giovanni’s conquests, with its refrain of “mille e tre,” or 1,003. (In fact, the number of the diabolical Don’s conquests is 2,065: 1,003 refers to the smitten women of Spain only.) Eco presents Leporello as a matter-of-fact empiricist--which is to say, he seems unaware that Mozart’s music tells another story, hinting at mockery and a hyperbole meant to evoke a reality beyond our imaginings, just as the very precision of the enumeration of battlefield casualties induces a sickening feeling of the bottomlessness of human suffering that more general terms such as “slaughter” or “massacre” do not convey.

Eco himself explains just how it is that a practical list can also be an infinite list, noting that “a restaurant menu is a practical list. But in a book on culinary matters, a list of the diverse menus of the most renowned restaurants would already acquire a poetic value.” Book lists, he offers, are equally ambivalent. They both record what is present and, in the hands of the right sort of bibliophile, are an invitation to wander in the wider Elysian fields of acquisitiveness and possession. Gawande’s checklists, whether “read-do” or “do-confirm,” would likely signal to Eco all the many things that could have been, or that had been. Infinity, Eco seems to suggest, is all between the ears.


As now, so too in the seventeenth century there was a serious side to list-making. For making a list requires paying extremely close attention to the world. Going in a direction different from Eco’s, we can see the listing function as a cipher for the direct encounter with the object-world. The Baroque was not only the great age of learned play, but also of the New Science and the self-conscious championing of observation. Lists follow from this. Francis Bacon was the prophet of close examination, and was a great list-maker. Not only did he propose new ways of studying nature, he drew up inventories of natural historical projects to be undertaken by others. The vogue for encyclopedias and research tools--librarians still call them “finding aids”--that also sprouted in the seventeenth century, such as Daniel Morhof’s Polyhistor (1688), transformed European learned culture into a series of lists: books to read, instruments to master, speeches to control, and so on. With this we come closer still to Gawande’s idea of the list as a means of managing uncertainty.

The age of the New Science was also, in Europe, the age of the city. Among the transformations wrought by commerce were the flow of population into cities and the development of cities into physically and psychically huge locales, bursting to the brim with possibilities of all sorts. When Mr. Spectator spent twenty-four hours on the go in London on May 23, 1711, he was announcing to his thousands of readers--his authors, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, reckoned on sixty thousand per issue--that London was the first city that did not sleep. When Dickens begins Bleak House, a century later, with his primeval catalogue of a London shrouded in fog and drowned in mud, we are already in the idiom to be forged by Edgar Allan Poe in “The Man of the Crowd,” which in turn was so powerfully received and made French by Baudelaire. Paris--“the capital of the nineteenth century,” as Walter Benjamin called it--was the city of infinite possibility, and infinite despair. Walt Whitman looked at New York, the future capital of the twentieth century, and saw his infinitude mirrored in its. The late modern city--Eco gives us Los Angeles-sprawls in all directions, with only connections, and neither center nor periphery. The image of the neuron is apposite, and suggests again the horizon of what we do not fully understand.


The infinite came to a forty-six-year-old woman in Flatbush in the last week of December 1695. She left four little children, and so her possessions were inventoried and evaluated to provide funds for their support. Almost all we know of this woman, who was named Margrieta van Varick, is in this list. A probate inventory is a kind of death mask, and bears the same relation to the living person. It is, in short, the opposite of Gawande’s sort of list. It is a list that is the residue of all possible activities, capturing all the finitude of a person, and almost none of the infinitude. On the other hand, like a death mask, the inventory relates a physiognomy which, even if it is cast at a single moment in time, is the sum total of the many individual moments that preceded it.

Eco does not talk about inventories, but they are the form of list that scholars have relied upon for the longest time. They are fantastically helpful in providing documentation about the way people lived. Art historians have used them to learn about artists--what objects they possessed, what books they owned. Social historians have used them to assess the buying power of consumers and the pricing power of producers. Where room-by-room inventories were the norm, their survival enables us to reconstruct interior spaces, and to deduce relationships between people and their things that generally go unspoken in texts.

Seeking to understand the “social life of goods” or to learn the “biographies of objects” has led scholars to push their questions into new places and to address them to new people. With Margrieta’s inventory one can map out her and her family’s movements across the Dutch diaspora from Amsterdam to Malacca and back, and then on to Flatbush. With it, one can help to establish the genealogy of her family. Since this particular inventory comes with an appendix that lists the debts owed her by seventy-five named residents of the six towns of late seventeenth-century western Long Island (a.k.a. Brooklyn), it also helps to identify particular people and the existence of a social network. And an inventory can serve, of course, as the basic building block for a curator trying to re-assemble the kind of objects that Margrieta possessed, if not the actual ones.

But inventories can also tell us something about how people feel. For unlike a shopping list, or a top-ten list, or even a museum catalogue, a person’s inventory brings us up very close to a person’s identity. Even at an enormous distance, and without any letters, diaries, or pictures, Margrieta’s inventory, with its heavy concentration of children’s clothes and toys, and its gifts specially chosen for each child and then carefully wrapped in a napkin for posterity’s voyage, tells us something about Margrieta as a mother that bridges the vast abyss of time. An inventory, appearances to the contrary, is an affective list. Almost all inventories are twinned with death, but this particular one, with its children’s artifacts, and the circumstances surrounding its existence, wrings one’s heart, all the legalese notwithstanding.


There is still one more fascinating thing about an inventory. The word is derived from the Latin verb invenire, “to come upon.” Inventories are lists of things that one comes upon. Probate inventories are what remain of us when our intentionality is no longer--unlike the lists that Eco treats, which are attempts to find infinity in the measure of man, such as Homer cataloging ships as a way of emphasizing an enormity beyond words; and unlike Gawande’s lists, which try to reduce that enormity to something measurable and manageable. They represent, therefore, a different kind of culture: not the triumphant spectacle of the human intervention in the natural world, but the pathos of the human on the uncertain threshold between the finite and the infinite. In this meeting of the living and the dead, the list is at its most powerful. As the poet Peter Cole wrote, in a poem called “Things on Which I’ve Stumbled”:

thought’s disjecta membra—

a letter forgotten
(a recipe scribbled on its back)
a shopping list,
or bill once due,
living’s marginalia—

the rubble of what we’ve known was true. 

Peter N. Miller is dean and chair of academic programs at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City. He is the editor, with Deborah L. Krohn, ofDutch New York Between East and West: The World of Margrieta van Varick (Yale University Press).

For more TNR, become a fan on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.