People Who Interest Me
There was one character from Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close that stood out to me most. His name was Mr. A Black, and he kept a file cabinet of cards with people’s names on them. But this was no ordinary contact list. It was not an address book for personal contacts. It was not a rolodex for business contacts. It was an index of every single person Mr. A Black thought he may need to reference some day–“everyone that seemed biographically significant.”
'Why don't you just use the Internet?'―"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," Ch. 75
'I don't have a computer!' That made me start to feel dizzy.
'How many cards do you have?'
'I've never counted! There must be tens of thousands by this point! Maybe hundreds of thousands!'
'What do you write on them?'
'I write the name of the person and a one-word biography!'
'Just one word?'
'Everyone gets boiled down to one word!'
'And that's helpful?'
'It's hugely helpful! I read an article about Latin American currencies this morning! It referred to the work of someone named Manuel Escobar! So I came and looked up Escobar! Sure enough, he was in here! Manuel Escobar: unionist!'
Besides Manuel Escobar, Mr. A Black had a card for:
Che Guevera: war!
Jeff Bezos: money!
Martha Stewart: money!
Mahatma Gandhi: war!
Arthur Ashe: tennis!
Susan Sontag: thought!
Stephen Hawking: astrophysics!
Elie Wiesel: war!
The main character of the book was a 9-year-old boy named Oskar Schell who lost his father in the September 11 attacks. He was upset that his father was not in Mr. A Black’s biographical index, yet Mohamed Atta, one of the hijackers and leaders of the 9/11 attacks, was in the catalogue: war!
'It isn't fair.'―"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," Ch. 77
'What isn't fair!'
'My dad was good. Mohammed Atta was evil.'
'So my dad deserves to be in there.'
'What makes you think it's good to be in here!'
'Because it means you're biographically significant.'
'And why is that good!'
'I want to be significant.'
'Nine out of ten significant people have to do with money or war!'
After I finished reading the novel, I was inspired by Mr. A Black to start keeping a list of people too. I called my list “People Who Interest Me.” And I continue to add people who interest me to this list whenever I discover them. What I like about the word “interest” is that it neither implies admiration nor approval. Interest is closer to curiosity or fascination. And in a similar vein as being on Mr. A Black’s list, being on my list is not necessarily a good thing. It is just a thing.
I’ve realized that the list is mostly male. My best guess for why this is the case is because besides categories like celebrity culture and music (which seem to be more equal in gender representation), many of the people on my list are from fields like mathematics, business, science, philosophy, and technology, which historically have skewed male and continue to do so (though hopefully not for long). Art historian Linda Nochlin wrote a great essay in 1971 titled “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (a). In it, she challenges the notion that there even is such a thing as a ‘Great Artist,’ and “stress[es] the institutional–that is, the public–rather than the individual, or private, preconditions for achievement or the lack of it in the arts.” She also emphasizes some of the ways in which women artists were held back from advancing in the arts. From the 16th century until the end of the 19th century, a time when “the nude model was essential to the training of every young artist,” women were generally not allowed to study or work with the nude body (male or female) in academies.
What other barriers existed for women artists? What barriers existed for women in other fields? What barriers continue to exist today?
Another reason I presume my list skews male is because of what I have been exposed to and what exists on the internet. Even seemingly impartial information sources, such as Wikipedia (where I discover many people), suffer from large gender bias (a). A calculation (a) from June 2019 found that only 16.8% of Wikipedia editors identify as female. And on English Wikipedia (the Wikipedia I read), as of July 2019, only 17.89% of biographies on the site were of females (WHGI (a)).
Right now, my list isn’t tagged or easily searchable, but I’m working on a script to do just that! In the meantime, feel free to browse it below.