Twixmas means it's time to roll out the top ten lists
If I were a better person I’d try to ignore the news, declining my phone’s Pavlovian invitation constantly to refresh the New York Times and Washington Post apps. This is, arguably, the most tranquil week of the year and we should embrace the excuse it offers to avoid the world’s turmoil.
Journalists, of all people, typically do. Were you to visit your favorite news site or pick up an old-fashioned newspaper you could be forgiven for believing reporters were hard at work documenting war and crime, chaos and mayhem the way they do the other fifty-one weeks of the year. But drop down just below the lead stories and you might notice a flock, a veritable gaggle of year-end, round up, top ten lists, even if my math is slightly off.
Here are a few examples starting with the venerable New York Times: “55 Things That Stayed With Us in 2023” courtesy of the newspaper’s opinioned opinion staff members. And just below that “10 Charts That Explain The Year.”
Not to be outdone the Washington Post weighs in with “The images that shocked, awed and inspired in 2023” as well as “A very strange year for TV yielded a bumper crop of great shows. These are our top ten.”
And then there’s that inevitable end-of-year obituary round up in the Times and elsewhere: memorials to the famous and fabulous who have passed from the scene since the last time we performed this ritual in 2022.
There’s obvious reasons for this flurry of formulaic stories. One year is ending and another is beginning. We owe posterity our attention. Summing up and pontificating is also a normal, largely harmless inclination. Also, the human mind leans in to lists. Perhaps it’s our atavistic desire to wrest order out of chaos, the universe’s seemingly normal state of affairs.
But there’s another more prosaic reason these stories appear at this particular time. I can attest to that as someone who’s worked in newspapers and magazines. They fill editorial holes on one of the slowest news weeks of the year. They’re annual stories that don’t require a lot of creative thinking. Most important of all, they can be written in advance, allowing journalists and editors to spend time with family and friends.
I’m resisting the urge to click on them this season and I’m not entirely sure why. Part of it may be that technology has become a victim of its own success. I’m less interested in what happened in the past, even if it was only last week or last month, than what happened in the last twenty-four hours.
Another possible reason is that we’re continuously being bombarded with so much stimulus that anything that doesn’t stun the senses or shocks the conscience feels stale. A reluctant shout out to Donald Trump who seems to understand better than anyone that the beast needs to be fed on the hour, if not more frequently.
I’m not quite sure when news sites and other content providers started to inform you, at the top a story, the number of minutes it would take to consume it. For starters, how would anyone know? I’m a slow reader. It might take me double the time to devour a piece in the Atlantic that it does a speed-reader.
But the most insidious tell about this trend is that it suggests that if a reader can’t be guaranteed that the effort won’t monopolize more than four or five minutes of his or her time then, well, forget it. I suppose the psychology is that if you can be reassured that you can go back to playing Resident Evil on your iPhone as soon as possible you might be more willing to devote your precious time, rather than skimming or skipping it, to some story that a journalist or author has invested weeks, months and even years investigating.
But therein lies the reason that I’m avoiding the top ten phenomenon. Those articles are inherently sentimental and wistful. You’re returning to the past, no matter how recent that past, and retracing your steps. I don’t need to need to be told what I already know, no matter how artfully curated. I’m more interested in what’s up next.
My allergic reaction might also be age-related. I’m less attuned to pop cultures reference than I once was. I still haven’t quite figured out how you’re supposed to watch everything worthwhile on Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu, not to mention on Instagram and TikTok and still read more than a few paragraphs of a book – whether a hard copy or on Kindle is up to you – before dozing off at night.
This column is typically over eight hundred words in length. I suppose I should have mentioned that at the top in case you wanted to skip it. But that’s the glory of radio. You’re a captive audience. Canceling me requires taking the extra step of hitting the next pre-set button. To those of you who haven’t done so yet I offer my gratitude and best wishes for the New Year!
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found be found on Substack.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.