Sunday, August 4, 2013


There's a pretty cool resource on Tumblr called Explore which features daily posts on all kinds of subjects having to do with science, technology, art, design, history, literature, creativity, innovation, thought, opinion, and other such stimuli for the mind. Today they posted a listing I've seen a couple of times before, one that always cracks me up and seems like it might serve as a jumping-off point for a certain kind of thinking-writing experience in the classroom. I've not used it before, but I am adding to my list for the fall. It's the Celestial Emporium of Knowledge from Jorge Luis Borges's 1942 short story "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins":

Animals are classified as follows:

1. those that belong to the Emperor,
2. embalmed ones,
3. those that are trained,
4. suckling pigs,
5. mermaids,
6. fabulous ones,
7. stray dogs,
8. those included in the present classification,
9. those that tremble as if they were mad,
10. innumerable ones,
11. those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush,
12. others,
13. those that have just broken a flower vase,
14. those that from a long way off look like flies.
Preliminary Remarks:

• This list lacks the logical structure one would normally expect or demand from a "classification." Normally, we would expect that the categories would be divided in such a way as to account for all animals, include nothing that is not an animal, but make distinctions between them that would put them in sections that do not overlap. In other words, leave nothing out, include nothing that does not belong, and count nothing twice.

• This list doesn't even pretend to follow the expected rules. Instead, it begins with a randomness that is accelerated as we move down through the list, the only apparent criterion being that each one should be even more surprising and interesting than the next.

• There are fourteen items in the list.

• The list is playful in a way that evokes playfulness: at least it does in me. This looks like fun. I'd like to play.

Possible self- (or classroom) assignments:

• Assume that the list is incomplete. Write the next ______ items in the list, keeping consistent as best you can with your spirit of what has gone before.
• Taking this list as flawed, draw up a better list, whatever better might mean to you.
• Write another list of about the same length that begins with the line "____________ are classified as follows:"
• Take any one of the items in the list and write a poem, story, or vignette in which one of these animals (for example, an animal that has just broken a flower vase) appears.
• Brainstorm another list on any topic that interests you, with an original logic of its own.

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