The art of the chart: How we fell in love with ranking the world

Still the first, and greatest, a world-conquering "ten best" list emerged from a smoky mountain top in Sinai around – if we accept the traditional dates – 1440BC. "I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other Gods before me..." And so, in the Book of Exodus, the Ten Commandments thunder along before giving way to all those subsidiary by-laws, with Moses no longer a charismatic bearer of the hot news about killing, coveting and adultery but a sort of small-town magistrate with a forte in livestock misdemeanours: "If the ox shall push a manservant or a maidservant, he shall give unto their master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned."

Does some secular echo of the litanies of faith still sound through our modern obsession with chart rankings, top tens and (these days) books that chronicle the 1001 albums, movies, buildings, walks, paintings and places we must experience before we die? We may live in hope of catching up with Abel Gance's silent epic Napoleon, scaling Helvellyn or savouring every minute of that Sopranos box set while we still can, but sadly conclude that the idyllic month on Kiribati will have to wait for a future incarnation. The spirit is willing, but the wallet is weak.

Certainly, the pleasure of consumption has never felt so much like tick-box duty. The gift-idea tables in bookshops groan with titles that promise rosters of the ten, 100 or 1000 leading items in their class. Even misanthropes can relish the genre, with Quentin Letts's 50 People Who Buggered Up Britain (from Jeffrey Archer to Harold Wilson via Greg Dyke and Charles Saatchi) now re-issued in a credit-crunch edition "with added bankers".

Books of lists first sprouted as a labour-saving remedy for time-poor readers keen to find an antidote to information overload that would offer a spell of fun along with handy tips and useable data. Now the fun comes in truly industrial strength. Once a humble refuge for male adolescents with as yet embryonic social skills, the Guinness Book of Records exploded from Norris and Ross McWhirter's first compendium in 1955 into a multi-media empire of the factoid. Rebranded as Guinness World Records, it eventually took in TV shows, special events and theme-park museums across the US. Many former fans (overt or covert) rather disapprove of the aura of stardust and sensation that now hovers around this franchise. Yet still it works its magic. Last week, Guinness World Records 2010 sold almost 50,000 hardback copies in the UK; Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol, its nearest competitor, could only manage 37,000.

So the list has become big business, a staple of the publishing and media industries. Beyond the "superlative" model pioneered by the Guinness volumes, David Wallechinsky's Book of Lists (in 1977) inaugurated many more random collections of extremes, anomalies and curiosities. It all feels a long way from the modest itch to enquire about about the longest rivers, oldest trees or nearest stars that first bred modern versions of the form. And the list cult has picked up speed thanks to new technology that eases compilation and presentation. Internet sources, both solid and flaky, supplement or replace long days spent in the reference stacks of large libraries. Computerised setting and design have made the sort of table that would once have taxed the most nimble of printshop compositors the work of a few keystrokes.

Yet, the injunctions of Moses aside, our fascination with catalogues of strange data has a resonant intellectual history. Curated with the help of Umberto Eco, an exhibition now at the Louvre in Paris – Mille e Tre – explores the changing role and form of the list through millennia of European art, literature, science and philosophy. "A thousand and three" is, of course, the number of conquests in Spain ascribed to Don Giovanni by Leporello in his first-act aria numbering seductions in Mozart's opera: Italy rates 640, Germany 231, France 100 and Turkey 91.

The illustrated anthology that partner's Eco's project, The Infinity of Lists (translated by Alastair McEwen; MacLehose Press), gives the Italian polymath the chance to gather and interpret many choice catalogues and roll-calls from European literature and painting. In poetry and prose, Eco's ultimate treasury of top lists stretches from Homer's catalogue of ships in the Iliad and the "promiscuous crowd" of heathen gods in Milton's Paradise Lost to the urban stinks of Patrick Süskind's Perfume and that favourite avant-garde roster, the pseudo-Chinese classification of animals devised by Borges in his inspired parody of the encyclopaedist's method: "a/ those that belong to the emperor; b/ embalmed ones; c/ those that are trained; d/ suckling pigs; e/ mermaids; f/ fabulous ones; g/ stray dogs; h/ those that are included in this classification..."

Eco has long reflected on the list-making urge as a motor of Western culture, as anyone one who remembers the labyrinthine monastic library in his bestseller The Name of the Rose will know. But, although he charts the contribution of classification to knowledge as the centuries of medieval scholasticism give way to Baroque collections of curiosities and then to modern scientific taxonomy, he never loses sight of the list as peculiar kind of art.

Scholars try to separate fact from fancy in their lists, or divide the definitive catalogue with "everything included" from the "chaotic enumeration" of an infinite set that simply works on the principle of "etcetera". "You're the top," wrote Cole Porter in a timely example of the latter which Eco quotes in The Infinity of Lists, "You're the Coliseum. You're the top – you're the Louvre museum..." And so on. Even cities, Eco suggests, can function as a sort of lists, either synopsis or sprawl: on the one hand, the fixity of Florence, on the other, the infinity of Los Angeles.

But, given the messiness of data, distinctions always tend to crumble. Eco shows how "practical" and "poetic" lists have a habit of contaminating each other. Writers and performers have long known that you can make a list into a work by placing a frame around it. Voice and intonation made Rowan's Atkinson's "school register" sketch into a comic classic. Don Paterson, invoking a tradition as old as Homer or (here) the Beowulf poet, crafted a haunting and sinister poem, "14.50: Rosekinghall", out of the names of Scottish villages that he imagines as branch-line halts: "...Outfield - Jericho - Horn - Roughstones/ Loak - Skitchen - Sturt – Oathlaw/ Wolflaw - Farnought - Drunkendubs - Stronetic/ Ironharrow Well - Goats - Tarbrax – Dameye/ Dummiesholes - Caldhame - Hagmuir - Slug of Auchrannie/ Baldragon - Thorn - Wreaths - Spurn Hill/ Drowndubs - The Bloody Inches - Halfway - Groan,/ where the train will divide..."

In Britain, no compiler of lists both charming and serviceable does a more addictive job than Russell Ash. His Top Ten of Everything books and their spin-offs retain just the right blend of authority and eccentricity. This season, he has a Top Ten for 2010 and a Top 10 of Britain (both Hamlyn), as well as Whitaker's World of Facts (A & C Black), a junior version of the august Almanack. His anthologies have sold, he reckons, between four and five million copies.

Ash opened his list-maker's workshop in the mid-1980s with a compendium of London facts. "Somebody gave me a copy of the Book of Texas Lists," the Sussex-based emperor of enumeration recalls, "and I thought, if you can do it for Texas, you could do it for London." Unlike more subjective compilers, however, Ash "set myself ther task of compiling only lists that could be measured". He aspired to make his catalogues "100 per cent quantifiable".

All the same, the allure of his volumes depend –as Eco would rapidly detect – as much on poetry as practicality. Ash prefers those "offbeat" lists that deliver unexpected results and hard-to-locate data. "What you're demanding from a top ten is something that will give you added value," he says, beyond the obvious classes of highest peaks or deepest caves: "the biggest film flops, or the most expensive cars sold at auction."

Thanks to his métier he now has "privileged access to industry databases – stuff that you won't find on the internet", and draws on the help of dedicated informants. "I've got a poisonous snakes man and an expert in skyscrapers... They are often prepared to share their knowledge because few other people want that depth of information." However, some definitive rankings still elude him, such as the planet's most popular first names: "I don't know how one would even begin."

Ash also enjoys counter-intutive selections. No reader will linger for long over yet another table of nations that shows the US or China at the head, but he is "much more intrigued by lists where you will find Rwanda at the top: it is the only country where women make up more than 50 per cent of members of parliament. Or the countries where sheep most outnumber people: Mongolia and New Zealand."

Above all, what Ash calls the "unlikely juxtaposition" can anchor lists in our imagination. Eco says about this kind of classification that "it confers order, and hence a hint of form, to an otherwise disordered set", and notes that Surrealism used just this device. Ash's incongruous bedfellows include, for instance, Edouard Manet and Josiah Wedgwood as famous people with wooden legs. He yokes Elvis Presley, Albert Einstein and Marilyn Monroe as top-earning dead celebrities. His grouping of notable British preserved animals links Dolly the Sheep with Florence Nightingale's pet owl.

Lists promise a dream of reason, with our choices as consumers or our knowledge as citizens neatly boxed and graded. In reality, a welcome chaos derails them. "What could be an archive register", writes Eco about Victor Hugo's chronicle of revolutionary delegates in France, "becomes a mind-boggling experience". The lists that might order our thoughts in fact often boggle our minds. Or so many people will find out very soon, when they find themselves warbling a carol that surreally ranks 12 drummers drumming, 11 pipers piping, 10 lords a-leaping and that solitary partridge in a pear tree.

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