How do we love lists? Let us count the ways. An unflinching look at the cultural compulsion to rank everything from movies to erogenous zones. PLUS, we made a list (actually, a meta-list) of the all-time best ratings, rosters, and rollcalls

The top three opening sentences for this article:

1. Lists are hot, hot, hot!

2. It all began with those pesky Ten Commandments.

3. There hasn’t been this much listing since the Titanic hit the iceberg.

Every time you flip on the tube or open a magazine these days, it seems as if another bunch of pundits has ranked the top 100 something-or-other. The American Film Institute gave us the 100 greatest movies. The Modern Library selected this century’s 100 best English-language novels. And a magazine called ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY has listed everything but the top 100 Meryl Streep accents. (That’s next week’s issue.) As the millennium looms, listitis is reaching epidemic proportions, threatening hundreds more top 100s, followed by the requisite outraged outbursts of ”How could those idiots leave mildew off the Top 100 Fungi?”

Whew! That was a whole paragraph with complete sentences and stuff. Let’s go to another nice, easy-to-read list: The Three Big Reasons People Love Lists, care of Casey Kasem.

1. ”They bring order to chaos.”

2. ”They’re comfortable.”

3. ”Everyone can relate to a list.”

Or, as the velvet voice behind the American Top 40 sums it up, ”they’re like finally cleaning out the drawer in the kitchen where you’ve spent years tossing all sorts of things.”

Indeed, humans appear to have been compulsively arranging their mental drawers forever. Fifteen centuries ago, we started a top seven list for the wonders of the ancient world, and founding father George Washington lived by his list of 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour (e.g., Sleep not when others speak). In the past decade, though, we’ve really gone list crazy. Why? Let’s make a you-know-what …

1. Info overload. With 500 channels, E-mail, voice-mail, and the Internet (home to the Top 100 Ways to Annoy Your Roommate), ”anything that cuts through the clutter is increasingly valuable,” says David Shenk, author of Data Smog. ”Instead of reading a 10,000-word article in The New Yorker on the greatest books, we read a 150-word list.”

2. The fluidity of modern-day life. ”Everything in the United States is temporary and conditional,” says Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper‘s and creator of that cleverest of lists, Harper’s Index. ”So we’re constantly trying to build structures that will keep us in place … Lists are a form of ballast.”

3. The numbers racket. We’re smitten with digits. The Dow flashes in the corner of our TV. Your average dental hygienist knows the weekend box office. And we’re all counting the days to New Year’s Eve, 1999.

But enough boosterism. Let’s see the Whine List. The top three kvetches about these rankings: (1) There are too darn many of ’em, (2) they’re nothing but simplistic PR stunts, and (3) the very idea of best-of lists is arbitrary and totally misses the point. After all, purists say, it’s one thing to rank quantifiable info like ”The Top Long-Distance Jumpers of All Time,” but how can we rate something so subjective as art? Well, as Dr. Will Miller, a psychologist who specializes in analyzing pop culture, explains, ”the justification for ranking art is pure chutzpah.” So in that spirit, dear reader, The Last List.