Ranked Things and the Ranking Rankers Who Rank Them

Last week, the Swedish Academy awarded Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature for his poetic contributions in American music. Good for Bob, I say. I’ve been a fan ever since I first heard Blood on the Tracks at the age of twelve.

Not so good for Bob, as it turns out. As often happens when words are spoken and things take place, people are unhappy. He isn’t even a poet, some say, while others have pointed out other prolific American lyricists they would’ve picked over him. It’s a genuine literary melee.

Here’s an exchange I heard a few mornings ago while waiting in line for coffee:

First Guy: “Hey, did you hear Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature?”

Second Guy: “Yeah. Who’s next? Justin Bieber?”

Yes, it’s all good fun until someone proposes a false equivalence between Bob Dylan and Justin Bieber.

So to recap, it was a great week for Dylan and a not-so-great week for people who were upset at the idea of him becoming a Nobel laureate. Actually, it’s more accurate to say it was good for fans who thought Dylan deserved the prize, since the Nobel committee has thus far received no replies to their confirmation calls. As far as what the man himself thinks about winning the literature prize, well, no one seems to know.

By the way, I know I can’t be the only one who imagines Dylan’s voicemail message sung to the tune of “Positively 4th Street”:

You’ve got a lot of nerve, to call me on the phone,

I’m not here, so be sure to leave a message…

Anyway, the literary disagreement over the Nobel Prize reminded me of something else, namely the way people get themselves worked up over lists. “How dare you rank that over this?” they say, as they offer up their alternative ranking. Sports teams, musicians, albums, films, cars, dogs, novels, guitars, you name it—everything is fair game. In Dylan’s case, of course, winning the Nobel means someone thinks he’s Number One when it comes to poets, and as is always the case with rankings, people are going to disagree.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to lists, and that’s beyond the ones I make to be sure I don’t forget to buy toilet paper and feed the dog. I may not care about sports rankings, but when it comes to ranking things I love, like music, films, and literature, I always have an opinion. When I like something, I never settle for casually letting on that I think it’s cool. I feel the need to quantify my approval by saying something along the lines of, “Oh, yeah, that’s one of my top three Beatles tunes,” or “Yep, he’s definitely in my top five guitarists.” (Fact: Anyone who knows me also knows there are at least twelve musicians on “Gary’s Top Five Guitarists” list.)

We should be careful, though. Sometimes, ranked lists can serve as a nifty bypass right around worthwhile discussion. Think of someone chanting “We’re Number One!” while wearing one of those comically oversized foam fingers, and you’ll understand what I mean. In the online world, lists can also be delicious clickbait, with alluring subjects like “Twenty Things You Never Knew About Constructing Lists,” “The Top Ten Reasons for Reading Lists,” or “Five New Ways to Incorporate List-Making into Your Life.” Just try resisting those titles.

Despite all their negative potential, however, lists can provide a valuable opportunity. In the right circumstances, in fact, they can lead to downright meaningful debate. Take the Dylan situation, for example. The most interesting discussions I read about his Nobel prize award were the ones in which people not only talked about why they disagreed with the choice but even progressed beyond platitudes like “Dude, poetry doesn’t rhyme anymore,” “How can you even tell what he’s saying?” or the inexplicable “He’s too old, man.”

Sure, ranked lists may encourage intellectual laziness, and they can cause metaphorical fistfights, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Blind disagreement over rankings is one thing. Sharing the reasons why our opinions differ is something else entirely: rational discussion.

Imagine that.