Goodreads: The List
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.