John-Paul Flintoff




A List Of Lists

Ah, lists! How do I love you? Let me count the ways…

The great joy of making lists is that the process gives me a feeling, not entirely false, that I can impose order on the universe.

Plainly, I’m not the only one who feels that way. F Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Crack Up about making lists, including lists of lists.

Roget, who devised the great thesaurus, spent decades collecting words, and devising a system that would make them usefully searchable.

A less well known man, Gene Sharp, wrote a list of 198 methods of non-violent protest that inspired me to write my book How To Change The World.

Long before any of them, somebody drew up this list of synonyms, using cuneiform:



I’ve been thinking for a while about how to write something about this tendency of mine, this yearning to make lists, this method, delusion, strategy… or whatever we choose to call it.

I’m not sure what the answer is yet, but I came across a helpful blogpost suggesting ways to collect links, and put them in order – and it mentioned the following, which I cut and pasted from this page on Wikipedia.


The Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) is structured around ten main classes covering the entire world of knowledge; each main class is further structured into ten hierarchical divisions, each having ten sections of increasing specificity.

As a system of library classification the DDC is “arranged by discipline, not subject”, so a topic like clothing is classed based on its disciplinary treatment (psychological influence of clothing at 155.95, customs associated with clothing at 391, and fashion design of clothing at 746.92) within the conceptual framework.

The list below presents the ten main classes:

1 Class 000 – Computer science, information and general works
2 Class 100 – Philosophy and psychology
3 Class 200 – Religion
4 Class 300 – Social sciences
5 Class 400 – Language
6 Class 500 – Science
7 Class 600 – Technology
8 Class 700 – Arts and recreation
9 Class 800 – Literature
10 Class 900 – History and geography


There’s something deeply satisfying about the possibilities of a list that can endlessly branch into sub-lists.

But at a certain point, a point that I could never identify precisely in advance, before hitting it, that same endless possibility becomes overwhelming, sickening even.

Because if a list is to give satisfaction, it has to be finite… Discuss.


Posted: March 15, 2021

Keywords: lists, taxonomy, F Scott Fitzgerald, Roget




John-Paul Flintoff headshot, with Yours Truly written across it John-Paul Flintoff is author of six books, in 16 languages, including How To Change The World and A Modest Book About How To Make An Adequate Speech. He worked for 15 years as writer and associate editor on the Financial Times, the Sunday Times and other papers and magazines.


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