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Writing With Descriptive Lists

Paragraphs by John Updike, Tom Wolfe, James Thurber, and Jean Shepherd

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In descriptive prose, writers sometimes employ lists (or series) to bring a person or a place to life through the sheer abundance of precise details. According to Robert Belknap in The List: The Uses and Pleasures of Cataloguing (Yale University Press, 2004), lists may "compile a history, gather evidence, order and organize phenomena, present an agenda of apparent formlessness, and express a multiplicity of voices and experiences."

Of course, like any device, list structures can be overworked. Too many of them will soon exhaust a reader's patience. But used selectively and structured thoughtfully, lists can be downright fun--as the following examples demonstrate. Enjoy these excerpts from works by John Updike, Tom Wolfe, James Thurber, and Jean Shepherd. Then see if you're ready to create a list or two of your own.

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In "A Soft Spring Night in Shillington," the first essay in his memoir Self-Consciousness (Knopf, 1989), novelist John Updike describes his return in 1980 to the small Pennsylvania town where he had grown up 40 years earlier. In the following passage, Updike relies on lists to convey his memory of the "slow pinwheel galaxy" of seasonal merchandise in Henry's Variety Store along with the sense of "life's full promise and extent" that the shop's small treasures evoked..

1. Henry's Variety Store

by John Updike

A few housefronts farther on, what had been Henry's Variety Store in the 1940s was still a variety store, with the same narrow flight of cement steps going up to the door beside a big display window. Did children still marvel within as the holidays wheeled past in a slow pinwheel galaxy of altering candies, cards and artifacts, of back-to-school tablets, footballs, Halloween masks, pumpkins, turkeys, pine trees, tinsel, wrappings reindeer, Santas, and stars, and then the noisemakers and conical hats of New Year's celebration, and Valentines and cherries as the days of short February brightened, and then shamrocks, painted eggs, baseballs, flags and firecrackers? There were cases of such bygone candy as coconut strips striped like bacon and belts of licorice with punch-out animals and imitation watermelon slices and chewy gumdrop sombreros. I loved the orderliness with which these things for sale were all arranged. Stacked squarish things excited me--magazines, and Big Little Books tucked in, fat spines up, beneath the the skinny paper-doll coloring books, and box-shaped art erasers with a faint silky powder on them almost like Turkish delight. I was a devotee of packaging, and bought for the four grownups of my family (my parents, my mother's parents) one Depression or wartime Christmas a little squarish silver-papered book of Life Savers, ten flavors packaged in two thick pages of cylinders labeled Butter Rum, Wild Cherry, Wint-O-Green . . . a book you could suck and eat! A fat book for all to share, like the Bible. In Henry's Variety Store life's full promise and extent were indicated: a single omnipresent manufacturer-God seemed to be showing us a fraction of His face, His plenty, leading us with our little purchases up the spiral staircase of years.

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In the satirical essay "The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening" (first published in New York Magazine in 1976), Tom Wolfe frequently uses lists (and hyperbole) to pass comic scorn on the materialism and conformity of middle-class Americans in the 1960s and '70s. In the following passage, he itemizes what he sees as some of the more absurd features of a typical suburban house. Observe how Wolfe repeatedly uses the conjunction "and" to link the items in his lists--a device called polysyndeton.

2. The Suburbs

by Tom Wolfe

But somehow the workers, incurable slobs that they were, avoided Worker Housing, better known as "the projects," as if it had a smell. They were heading out instead to the suburbs the suburbs!--to places like Islip, Long Island, and the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles--and buying houses with clapboard siding and pitched roofs and shingles and gaslight-style front-porch lamps and mailboxes set up on top of lengths of stiffened chain that seemed to defy gravity, and all sorts of other unbelievably cute or antiquey touches, and they loaded these houses with "drapes" such as baffled all description and wall-to-wall carpet you could lose a shoe in, and they put barbecue pits and fish ponds with concrete cherubs urinating into them on the lawn out back, and they parked twenty-five-foot-long cars out front and Evinrude cruisers up on tow trailers in the carport just beyond the breezeway.

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The Years with Ross (1959), by humorist James Thurber, is both an informal history of The New Yorker and an affectionate biography of the magazine's founding editor, Harold W. Ross. In these two paragraphs, Thurber uses a number of short lists (primarily tricolons) along with analogies and metaphors to illustrate Ross's keen attention to detail.

3. Working with Harold Ross

by James Thurber

[T]here was more than clear concentration behind the scowl and the search-light glare that he turned on manuscripts, proofs, and drawings. He had a sound sense, a unique, almost intuitive perception of what was wrong with something, incomplete or out of balance, understated or overemphasized. He reminded me of an army scout riding at the head of a troop of cavalry who suddenly raises his hand in a green and silent valley and says, "Indians," although to the ordinary eye and ear there is no faintest sign or sound of anything alarming. Some of us writers were devoted to him, a few disliked him heartily, others came out of his office after conferences as from a side show, a juggling act, or a dentist's office, but almost everybody would rather have had the benefit of his criticism than that of any other editor on earth. His opinions were voluble, stabbing, and grinding, but they succeeded somehow in refreshing your knowledge of yourself and renewing your interest in your work.

Having a manuscript under Ross's scrutiny was like putting your car in the hands of a skilled mechanic, not an automotive engineer with a bachelor of science degree, but a guy who knows what makes a motor go, and sputter, and wheeze, and sometimes come to a dead stop; a man with an ear for the faintest body squeak as well as the loudest engine rattle. When you first gazed, appalled, upon an uncorrected proof of one of your stories or articles, each margin had a thicket of queries and complaints--one writer got one-hundred and forty-four on one profile. It was as though you beheld the works of your car spread all over the garage floor, and the job of getting the thing together again and making it work seemed impossible. Then you realized that Ross was trying to make your Model T or old Stutz Bearcat into a Cadillac or a Rolls-Royce. He was at work with the tools of his unflagging perfectionism, and, after an exchange of growls or snarls, you set to work to join him in his enterprise.

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The passages that follow were drawn from two paragraphs in "Duel in the Snow, or Red Ryder Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid," a chapter in Jean Shepherd's book In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash (1966). (You may recognize the author's voice from the film version of Shepherd's tales, A Christmas Story.)

Shepherd relies on lists in the first paragraph to describe a young boy who has been bundled up to confront a northern Indiana winter. In the second paragraph, the boy visits a department store Toyland, and Shepherd demonstrates how a good list can bring a scene to life with sounds as well as sights.

4. Ralphie Goes to Toyland

by Jean Shepherd

Preparing to go to school was about like getting ready for extended Deep-Sea Diving. Longjohns, corduroy knickers, checkered flannel Lumberjack shirt, four sweaters, fleece-lined leatherette sheepskin, helmet, goggles, mittens with leatherette gauntlets and a large red star with an Indian Chief's face in the middle, three pair of sox, high-tops, overshoes, and a sixteen-foot scarf wound spirally from left to right until only the faint glint of two eyes peering out of a mound of moving clothing told you that a kid was in the neighborhood. . . .

Over the serpentine line roared a great sea of sound: tinkling bells, recorded carols, the hum and clatter of electric trains, whistles tooting, mechanical cows mooing, cash registers dinging, and from far off in the faint distance the "Ho-ho-ho-ing" of jolly old Saint Nick.

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