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Top 5 reasons for list mania

Magazines' tendency to rate by numbers has gotten out of hand. Here's why, and a listing of the best and worst.

June 23, 2003|Peter Carlson | Washington Post

Forget the short story, the essay, the poem. Never mind the celebrity profile, the fashion spread, the full-color pictorial of women wearing nothing but sultry, come-hither looks. Let the record show that the reigning genre in contemporary American magazines is ... the List.

Go to any newsstand and check out the magazine covers: Glamour: "The 8 Hottest Moments a Couple Can Have." Men's Journal: "The 45 Best Bars." Jane: "378 Celeb Shockers."

Lists have long been a staple of the magazine biz, but lately things have gotten out of hand. In April, Spin, the rock mag, ran an all-list issue. In its June issue, Bassmaster, the fishing glossy, celebrated its 35th anniversary with five lists, each with 35 items, such as "America's 35 Most Important Bass Waters." Book, a magazine that covers literature, now runs lists called "the 100 Best Characters in Fiction" and "50 Best Adventure Books." Even Time, which was once above this sort of thing, recently ran "Nine Smashing Car Chases," a list from cinematic history.

The numbers in these lists keep escalating wildly. Harper's Bazaar touts "685 New Looks." Marie Claire ups the ante with "725 Sexy Fashion Finds." And Lucky, a magazine about shopping, blows them both away with a list of "5,279 gifts and prizes."

Of course, there are many reasons for the rise of the List. The top five reasons are:

1) Lists are the easiest way to organize information without actually thinking.

2) Magazine editors are too lazy to think of anything more creative.

3) Magazine editors figure their readers are too lazy to read anything but lists.

4) Readers really are too lazy to read anything but lists.

5) David Letterman's top 10 lists have warped everybody's minds.

Most magazine lists are, needless to say, totally stupid. But some are only semi-stupid, and some achieve a level of meta-stupidity that verges on genius. It takes an expert to tell the difference, so I've created my own list: "The 10 Best, Worst and Most Inane Magazine Lists I Could Scrounge Up on Short Notice." Here goes:

1) "45 New Year's Resolutions You Didn't Keep" (Ramp, March 2003). No. 9 is "I will develop a hobby other than drinking and watching TV." No. 10 is "I will clean my bathroom before the bowl gets fuzzy." Now we know what kind of man reads Ramp.

2) "137 Ways to Play Under Water" (Scuba Diving, June 2003). Watching sharks, playing rugby, chugging root beer, proposing marriage, getting married -- we've all done these things underwater. But who knew that if you took a tennis ball down 100 feet, it would flatten into a "fuzzy pancake" only to pop back into shape with a "tremendous Pow!" on the way up?

3) "The 15 Sexiest Things Women Do Without Knowing It" (Glamour, July 2003). This list turns out to be a bunch of quotes by random guys answering the question: "What's the sexiest thing a woman should never change about herself?" There are only 14 answers, two of which are essentially identical.

4) "Maxim Hot 100" (Maxim, June 2003). The 100 most beautiful women on Earth (or a reasonable facsimile thereof), each pictured wearing very little clothing. For some reason, this list works for me.

5) "100 Reasons to Hate Dubya" (Heeb: The New Jew Review, Spring 2003). My first reaction was: "Gee, it must have been hard to come up with the last 10 or 15 reasons." But this isn't a list at all. It's a transcribed tape of four pundits arguing about whether Bush is good for the Jews. Blatant false advertising.

6) "The 35 Most Influential People in the Modern Age of Bass Fishing" (Bassmaster, June 2003). Among the unsung heroes lauded here: Nick Creme, who "invented the plastic worm," and Bobby and Garry Garland, who "invented the Gitzit tube jig and the Spider Grub."

7) "33 Things You Should Know About Busta Rhymes" and "33 Things You Should Know about Missy Elliot" and "33 Things You Should Know About Metallica" (Blender, various recent months). Instead of writing profiles, the folks at Blender, the Maxim-spawned music mag, just collect 33 random facts about a celebrity. Hey, guys, if you can't write, maybe you should leave journalism and seek honest work.

8) "Top 10 Counterculture Colleges" (High Times, October 2002). Parents, did your high school senior suddenly exhibit an intense interest in Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.? This may be why: It was No. 1 on this pot magazine's list.

9) "265 Feel-Great Tips" (Prevention, June 2003). I'd feel a lot better if I could find this list. Alas, it doesn't exist. Apparently, if you read all the stories in here -- including the one called "Don't Spend Your Vacation in the Bathroom!" -- you'll encounter 265 tips that will make you feel great. However, I just feel like the victim of a bait-and-switch scam.

10) "The Ultimate List Issue" (Spin, April 2003). A list lover's dream: 100 lists about sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. My favorites included "Seven Rock Stars With Bad Teeth" and "Six Things Found in Elvis' Stomach When He Died." After 100 lists, you'd think Spin's editors would have sated their appetite. Nope. This month's cover story: "75 Sleazy Moments in Rock."

So, what does the future hold for the magazine list story? Well, there will be more. The spring 2003 issue of New Witch promised that the fall 2003 issue of New Witch will contain a story titled "Top 10 Pagan Campuses." So there you have it, folks -- a reason to go on living.

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