Top 10 Best Lists in Literature

Written by Professor De Soto, adjunct professor of literature at Providence Christian College. 


I have measured out my life with lists. Every single day I make a list of the tasks I need to accomplish. You’ll never find me leaving for the grocery store without a list. Growing up, those sweeping VH1 lists that spread over hours and hours would beckon me—the top 100 artists of all time, the 50 most awesomely bad songs ever. Only ten artists were covered each hour, so that means they had me for entire summer afternoons.

Now the many lists one can find on the Internet have replaced these—the ten greatest Bob Dylan songs, the top 25 cat tumblrs, the list of words David Foster Wallace circled in his dictionary. This constant cataloging makes a complicated world less overwhelming. If I am able to distill all of life into a list, I can cope with anything.

So, inspired by lists, and always by literature, I offer my own list for this series: A Top-Ten List of the Top Ten Literary Lists.


#1. The long list of party guests in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Here’s an excerpt:

“…In addition to all these I can remember that Faustina O’Brien came there at least once and the Baedeker girls and young Brewer, who had his nose shot off in the war, and Mr. Albrucksburger and Miss Haag, his fiancée, and Ardita Fitz-Peters and Mr. P. Jewett, once head of the American Legion, and Miss Claudia Hip, with a man reputed to be her chauffeur, and a prince of something, whom we called Duke, and whose name, if I ever knew it, I have forgotten.

All these people came to Gatsby’s house in the summer.”

And in case you were wondering—none of these people made it to Gatsby’s funeral.


#2. The list of quotations in Seymour and Buddy’s old room in Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. On the disheveled nature of this list, Buddy writes:

“No attempt whatever had been made to assign quotations or authors to categories or groups of any kind. So that to read the quotations from top to bottom, column by column, was rather like walking through an emergency station set up in a flood area, where, for example, Pascal had been unribaldly bedded down with Emily Dickinson, and where, so to speak, Baudelaire’s and Thomas a Kempis’s toothbrushes were hanging side by side.”


#3. Joan Didion’s packing list From The White Album:

To Pack and Wear:

2 skirts

2 jerseys or leotards

1 pullover sweater

2 pair shoes



nightgown, robe slippers



bag with: shampoo, toothbrush and paste, Basis soap, razor, deodorant, aspirin, prescriptions, Tampax, face cream, powder, baby oil

To Carry:

mohair throw


2 legal pads and pens


house key

Didion writes, “This is a list which was taped inside my closet door in Hollywood during those years when I was reporting more or less steadily. The list enabled me to pack, without thinking, for any piece I was likely to do. Notice the deliberate anonymity of costume: in a skirt, a leotard, and stockings, I could pass on either side of the culture. Notice the mohair throw for trunk-line flights (i.e. no blankets) and for the motel room in which the air conditioning could not be turned off. Notice the bourbon for the same motel room. Notice the typewriter for the airport, coming home: the idea was to turn in the Hertz car, check in, find an empty bench, an start typing the day’s notes.”


#4. Milan Kundera’s “Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words” from The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

I have so badly wanted to assign a book by Kundera for one of my classes. But he is too racy. I would get fired.

#5. Cash’s dutiful list on coffin making in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Cash’s list makes up the entire chapter. Then the next chapter is five words long. You gotta admire the audacity of Faulkner, if nothing else.


#6. Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Two Views of a Cadaver Room”

Plath was obsessed with death. In this poem, she describes the dead bodies as “black as burnt turkey.” But I think the most beautiful line is “He hands her the cut-out heart like a cracked heirloom.”


#7. Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Classic list poem.

This is my favorite stanza:

“I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.”


#8. Emily Dickinson’s entire body of work.

Instead of giving them titles, Dickinson numbered all of her poems. Therefore, all of them make the list.


#9. The Great Gatsby gets two (because I say so). How could I exclude Gatsby’s schedule for self-made manhood?

Rise from bed                                                  6.00 A.M.
Dumbell exercise and wall-scaling                    6.15 – 6.30 ”
Study electricity, etc                                         7.15 – 8.15 A.M.
Work                                                              8.30 – 4.30 P.M.
Baseball and sports                                          4.30 – 5.00 ”
Practice elocution, poise and how to attain it   5.00 – 6.00 ”
Study needed inventions                                  7.00 – 9.00″


No wasting time at Shafters or [a name, indecipherable]
No more smokeing or chewing.
Bath every other day
Read one improving book or magazine per week
Save $5.00 [crossed out] $3.00 per week
Be better to parents


#10. And finally…The Ten Commandments.

The top ten list to end all top ten lists.