Lists: a means to drive or pad the narrative

Around the World in Eighty Days

Cover of the first edition. (Wikipedia)

We’re in the middle of Around the World in Eighty Days, which we’re reading aloud at a rate of about one chapter a night. This is not the first chapter book we’ve read to The Daughter, who has thusfar been exposed to most of the Hitchhiker’s Guide (we started on Towel Day and ran out of steam partway through Mostly Harmless, which in any case mainly has the Sandwich Maker to recommend it), The Fox Woman, Odd and the Frost Giants, and some Sherlock Holmes (not technically a chapter book, but close enough). Nor is this her first exposure to Jules Verne.

We finished Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea some time ago. The Spousal Unit and I were quite amused, in an eye-rolling sort of way, any time we encountered one of the descriptive lists: lists of fish one might observe, for instance. We would joke about how Verne was clearly just transcribing from some fish book he happened to have sitting on his desk; how he must have been paid by the word; how fiction writers had not yet been advised to show rather than tell.

I started laughing at one point during Around the World in Eighty Days, when we were treated to some details of a British colony. I was reminded of the Colonial Office List I consulted for a paper, essentially an almanac for imperial interests. Authors of fiction do not need to cite their sources (thus making Michael Crichton’s oeuvre more bizarre), but I felt like I knew exactly what book had been sitting on Verne’s desk.