The List by Patricia Forde


Goodreads: The List
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: Aug. 2017


Years ago climate change caused the waters to rise and the earth to flood.  Only the believers escaped into the city of Ark, along with a few others who now live destitute outside the walls.  In Ark, Letta works as the apprentice wordsmith, collecting and keeping all the words until the people are ready for them.  For now, they are permitted to speak only 500 words.  Speaking others results in banishment.  But then one day Letta’s master dies and she is suddenly promoted.  Questions about his death lead to only more questions.  Is Ark really the utopia its founder says?


The marketing and reviews for this book suggested that The List is a thoughtful look at the power of words and the perils of censorship.  However, even though the citizens of Ark are only legally allowed to speak 500 words–the language of List–the book does not really focus on the implications of this system.  Rather, it turns into a pretty standard dystopian novel in which the protagonist attempts to thwart the experiments of a tyrant.

Notably, Letta does not really develop any deep understanding of the implications of List.  Her actions are primarily driven by the discovery that her friends ,and later the people of Ark, are facing violence at the hands of Ark’s leader.  Interestingly, Letta, like all the people of Ark, is aware of much of the violence and corruption.  She just doesn’t care until people she knows are left to be devoured by wild animals.  Or until, apparently, the violence becomes more violent than she thinks acceptable. It’s impossible not to wonder if Letta does not care about List because List does not affect her much, either.  As an apprentice wordsmith, she can speak the old language with her master.  She can also speak it with the leaders of Ark.  Letta, as a bit of snob, does not associate much with the “common” people.  Thus, her world is not really the world of List.

List, then, does not play as pivotal a role in the story as the summary might suggest.  Letta typically does not speak List and neither do the people she associates with.  It might have been interesting if the book itself had been written in List, really illustrating the implications of attempting to communicate meaning with only 500 words (and no tone or body language!).  However, it seems like the author was so well aware of the limitations of List, that she did not want to use it much either in the narrative or through her characters.  This means that Letta never really has to engage with List, never has to wonder what emotions or ideas people are lacking because they do not have the words.  Letta has the words.  And she’s not overly concerned with the people who do not.

The List ultimately disappointed me.  I was promised a book about censorship, but received a book about a girl joining (sort of) a secret organization that promotes paintings and music, and sometimes rises up if they perceive an immediate threat to their survival.  Any conclusions about the perils of List, however, must be drawn by readers thinking about the implications beyond those depicted in the story.

3 Stars

20 thoughts on “The List by Patricia Forde

      • Milliebot says:

        Yeah it would be a clever and thought-provoking challenge to write the whole book with only the 500 words from the list!

        I read Sophie Someone, kinda reminds me of this, in that the main character had her own language and the author stuck to it the whole time. It was really well done once I got used to it.


  1. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Yeah that’s quite a complex concept- the second I read that I just started thinking “How did that come about? And how would that work…?” It’s such a shame that this book doesn’t try to address that more (which seems to be the problem I find with so many dystopian books- they set up these complex ideas and then never really deal with them properly) I have to admit, it’s pretty disappointing that the author didn’t even try to make her use the list- I mean, it would have been tricky, but she could have potentially limited the speech and focused more on introspective thoughts (just to get round the fact that, yes, a book with only 500 words used over and over would be pretty tedious to read) Or alternatively, start with a limited lexicon and then expand- preferably sooner rather than later as she finds an old dictionary… I don’t know why I’m going into this in such great deal, I’m not even convinced it’s the best idea 😉 Anyway, great review- I totally get why you were disappointed with this- I’m frustrated with the way this played out just from reading your commentary on it 😉


    • Krysta says:

      I think it would have made sense if she had started out talking mostly List and then given up once she joined the rebels. Instead, she and her master spoke normally to each other and her only other contact was really the founder of Ark, who never speaks List. Which makes you wonder why no one questions why he doesn’t use his own language, if it’s supposed to be such a great thing!

      The protagonist also explains how there are scary mute people outside Ark and they’re scary because they’re like animals, who lack speech. Which should make here wonder, “Hm, so when we keep reducing our words, aren’t we becoming closer to animals ourselves? Why are voluntarily giving up more of our language all the time if we believe language is a distinguishing characteristic of humans?” But she never makes that connection! It’s so weird.

      The motives of List are equally bizarre. The founder explains language is bad because it convinced people climate change wasn’t happening, which caused melting ice and the need for Ark. No mention given to how language was also used to argue that climate change was happening.

      I just wanted the protagonist to engage with ANY of the ideas raised by the book! But she doesn’t!

      Liked by 1 person

      • theorangutanlibrarian says:

        Yes that makes a lot of sense. I mean I just don’t get the point of including this concept if it’s not actually going to apply. I think it’s totally possible to start the book off with it and then move away from it.

        And that’s the problem I find with a lot of these ideas- it’s not fully explored by either the plot or characters, so it ends up being a gimmick (usually that adds something super illogical to the story by accident)

        That. Makes. No. Sense. That’s such a daft reason (also I like how so many books fall back on climate change when they’ve run out of ideas- when really censorship doesn’t seem to be the biggest issue in the climate change debate- but maybe that’s just my take) This just sounds so infuriating!!

        Liked by 1 person

    • Briana says:

      This sounds disappointing to me, too, but the 500 word thing sounds kind of arbitrary to me, so I think maybe one solution would have been to make List just a little larger. Google is telling me that the second edition of the Oxford Dictionary had over 171,000 in English in “current use,” and we’ve probably only gained words since then so…500??? I think you’d barely be able to discuss anything with that many words.

      And as far as I can tell, the book doesn’t address that people would just MAKE UP words for things they commonly saw/experienced that they didn’t have an “official” word for. You can’t just keep people from talking about, say, cabbages just because you “eliminated” the word “cabbage” if this society grows a lot of cabbage! (Also, I assume this is a very limited society? Because we probably could waste a few hundred words just on types of food available to us in the current US market. So was this society just like “Nope, we don’t sell pineapples anymore. Forget it?”)

      Liked by 1 person

      • theorangutanlibrarian says:

        hahaha knowing that makes this *so much more* ridiculous. I mean, I can see how this might be an interesting concept… buuuut it’s like expanding out the idea of the Newspeak dictionaries in 1984 (the reduction of language and censorship in dystopias isn’t exactly groundbreaking or new on its own)

        hahaha yeah you’re making really good points. hehehehe yeah I’ve no idea how they would differentiate even between types of fruit now. I suppose you could say pineapple was “yellow fruit” and bananas were “more yellow fruit”- trouble is, just using up colours of the rainbow and the word “fruit” has already eaten into the number of words (1.6% of words gone already…) Which brings us back to the question… why 500 words?!


        • Briana says:

          I was thinking the same thing. Either this is a fairly primitive society that doesn’t have access to much variety of stuff (plants, animals, technology…) or else they’d at least do something like German and stick the words they have together to make compound words to differentiate between things. No way someone would call a sweater, a crop top, and a button-down all a “shirt” without at least using simple modifiers like “winter-shirt,” “short-shirt,” etc.

          Liked by 2 people

      • Krysta says:

        They sort of get around it by giving special List words to people who do different jobs, so if you are the apothecary, for instance, you know words others don’t. I guess they can’t ask for herbs, though, just point to themselves and say “Hurt” or something??

        And, yeah, they have “tea” but no words to describe different types of tea. But surely people would want to ask for a specific type if they had more than one! So, as you say, they presumably made them up. Or just used the words in the privacy of their own homes. There is a problem with the people teaching their children non-List words.


  2. Valerie says:

    I’m sorry to hear about this Krysta, especially since the concept sounds really intriguing. Plus this makes me wonder whether the original idea for this setting came from the notion of linguistic determinism, where the language you use ultimately shapes your perceptions and thoughts? But guess that really wasn’t explored here! Also I definitely agree that the author would have had a very hard time limiting themselves to only using 500 words!


    • Krysta says:

      I definitely thought the book was going to address how the people didn’t have certain concepts because they lacked the language. But then…it didn’t. It turned into what felt like just another dystopian novel, so that was disappointing.


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