Lists, Lists and More Lists

Cecilia Kiely '04, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

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Like most of the sage writers we have already read, Annie Dillard uses lists in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. In this passage, Dillard uses lists to describe the books she has been reading about arctic explorers:

I wake up thinking: What am I reading? What will I read next? I’m terrified that I’ll run out, that I will read through all I want to, and be forced to learn wildflowers at last, to keep awake. In the meantime I lose myself in a liturgy of names. The names of the men are Knud Rasmussen, Sir John Franklin, Peter Freuchen, Scott, Peary, and Byrd; Jedediah Smith, Peter Skene Ogden, and Milton Sublette; or Daniel Boone singing on his blanket in the Green River Company. The names of waters are Baffin Bay, Repulse Bay, Coronation Gulf, and the Ross Sea; the Coppermine River, the Judith, the Snake, and the Musselshell; the Pelly, the Dease, the Tanana, and Telegraph Creek. Beaver plews, zero degrees latitude, and gold. I like the clean urgency of these tales, the sense of being set out in the wilderness with a jackknife and a length of twine. If I can get up a pinochle game, a little three-hand cutthroat for half a penny a point and a bottle of wine, fine; if not I’ll spend these southern nights caight in the pack off Franz Josef Land, or casting for arctic char.

Unlike lists we have seen in McPhee and Chatwin, Dillard’s lists seem to be organized by grouping. Rather than simply listing elements, she appears to have grouped them in certain categories, as indicated by the variation in punctuation—alternating between commas and semi-colons. What effect does this have on the list? Do these breaks make the list easier to follow and do they sustain your attention better than the longer ones we have read?

Dillard lists of names and then places is followed by a mini-list “Beaver plews, zero degrees latitude, and gold.” What is she listing here? What function does this list serve?

Dillard introduces her first list as “a liturgy of names.” How does this affect how we read the list? How is this consistent with the tone of the book as a whole?

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Last modified 3 December 2006