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Shallow wit vs. deep intellect

The article-as-numbered-list has several features that make it inherently captivating: the headline catches our eye in a stream of content; it positions its subject within a preexisting category and classification system, like “talented animals”; it spatially organizes the information; and it promises a story that’s finite, whose length has been quantified upfront. Together, these create an easy reading experience, in which the mental heavy lifting of conceptualization, categorization, and analysis is completed well in advance of actual consumption—a bit like sipping green juice instead of munching on a bundle of kale. And there’s little that our brains crave more than effortlessly acquired data. Maria Konnikova, "A List of Reasons Why Our Brains Love Lists" New Yorker, December 2, 2013

OK, again, here was my take on numbered lists and why we like'm

Here are three reasons, every piece of writing should have a number that helps describe it:

  1. A number gives the reader hope that the writing is finite. When the title is "The 5 Reasons You Shouldn't Pick Your Nose - And the 3 Surprising Reasons You Should," the time-pressed know that once eight reasons have been given, they can move on. In order to have this impact, I'd not go above 12 in the title. Who'd read the "137 Reasons Why ..." for anything?
  2. Many numbers have an association of mystical importance. Through much of history, numbers (3, 7 and 12 especially) have connotations of power. Think of the 3 Wishes, the 7 Samurai, or the 12 Days of Christmas. Don't just use numbers - use the really good numbers. A "Top 10" list just sounds better than a "Top 9" or "Top 11" list. Why is that?
  3. A number signifies selectiveness. If I write the "7 Best Reasons You Should Read This Blog," there is an unstated but powerful implication that there are so many good reasons for the argument that I had to actually narrow the choices. Rather than try to fabricate the last couple as is usually the case.  

    "3 Reasons for Numbered Lists" Blue Skunk blog, December 21, 2011

Or if you prefer the PPT version:


"...effortlessly acquired data," indeed. But Konnikova sums up her article by warning

... we tend to choose the ... bite-sized option, even when we know we will not be entirely satisfied by it. And that’s just fine, as long as we realize that our fast-food information diet is necessarily limited in content and nuance, and thus unlikely to contain the nutritional value of the more in-depth analysis of traditional articles that rely on paragraphs, not bullet points.

I've never made a secret of the fact that if I have any gift it is a shallow wit, not a deep intellect. And wit may well serve a writer better in a fast information culture than intellect. Bullet lists, sound bites, and bumper stickers are the snack foods of knowledge. Tasty, popular, and even addictive, but not nutritious. 

I am always happy to read an article like Konnikova's. Should we all be doing more "close reading" of challenging texts?

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Reader Comments (2)

Hi Doug,

I saw and was intrigued by Konnikova's post as well on

Most everybody loves a little curation. As LMS, we do the "the mental heavy lifting of conceptualization, categorization, and analysis" on behalf of our users as we select the databases, books (paper, digital, etc.), web sites and other resources we think will meet the learning needs of our patrons. Little do they (and perhaps we?) know we are covertly creating our own "lists."

Perhaps, as you frequently write, we should do a better job of promoting our work by advertising our efforts. In this case, we could re-brand them as lists. ;-)



December 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Dyer

Hi John,

I sometimes wonder if librarian (and tech specialists) curate enough. I go to too many "60 apps in 60 minutes" or "every book you ought to read" workshops. Give me 3 or 4 really good things rather than throwing a ton of stuff at me - and hoping some will stick! Selection has always been one of the values we add to resource collections of every kind.

All the best,


December 10, 2013 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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