Unmemorable lists

Elsewhere I said that lists allow us to include a lot of information in short space in a way that readers can understand it, and perhaps remember it. But some lists convey impressions rather than material to be recalled.

This passage from Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink gives us a window into the thinking of experts by using their terminology, but is too dense to remember:

Jam experts, though, don’t have the same problem when it comes to explaining their feelings about jam. Expert food tasters are taught a very specific vocabulary, which allows them to describe precisely their reactions to specific foods. Mayonnaise, for example, is supposed to be evaluated along six dimensions of appearance (color, color intensity, chroma, shine, lumpiness, and bubbles), ten dimensions of texture (adhesiveness to lips, firmness, denseness, and so on), and fourteen dimensions of flavor, split among three subgroups – aromatics (eggy, mustardy, and so forth); basic tastes (salty, sour, and sweet); and chemical-feeling factors (burn, pungent, astringent).

Readers could remember some of those terms as they taste mayonnaise, but would probably have to study the passage to recall the structures.

This selection from Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News capture the variety and wacky ordinariness of life in a seaside village with a pellmell rush of terms:

He had never seen so many ads. They went down both sides of the pages like descending stairs and the news was squeezed into the vase-shaped space between. Crude ads with a few lines of type dead center. Don’t Pay Anything Until January! No Down Payment! No Interest! As though these exhortations were freshly coined phrases for vinyl siding, rubber stamps, life insurance, folk music festivals, bank services, rope ladders, cargo nets, marine hardware, ship’s laundry services, davits, rock band entertainment at the Snowball Lounge, clocks, firewood, tax return services, floor jacks, cut flowers. truck mufflers, tombstones, boilers, brass tacks, curling irons, jogging pants, snowmobiles, Party Night at Seal Flipper Lounge with Arthur the Accordion Ace, used snowmobiles, fried chicken, a smelting derby, T-shirts, oil rig maintenance, gas barbecue grills, wieners, flights to Goose Bay, Chinese restaurant specials, dry bulk transport services, a glass of wine with the pork chop special at the Norse Sunset Lounge, retraining program for fishermen, VCR repairs, heavy equipment operator training, tires, rifles, love seats, frozen corn, jelly powder, dancing at Uncle Demmy’s Bar, kerosene lanterns, hull repairs, hatches, tea bags, beer, lumber planing, magnetic brooms, hearing aids.
He figured the ad space. Gammy Bird had to be making money. And somebody was one hell of a salesman.

The breathless pace is dizzying, but the writing is clear, although no one would expect to remember all the details.

Take a look at my previous post for Garrison Keillor using a similar technique.

[Need suggestions for a term for this kind of list.]

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Published in: on September 29, 2009 at 5:19 pm  Leave a Comment  

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