It might have begun with that favorite question: “Who was the worst person of all time?” Many a late-night debate has raged over whether Mao or Stalin or Hitler wins that prize. (I recall Innocent III being once proposed on the grounds of launching the Fourth Crusade.) It was all a bit childish, but at least there was a sense of historical sweep. The best person of all time isn’t nearly as interesting a question, but history is filled with terrible people, and one forgets them at one’s peril. And we always want to know who’s on top. Even in hell.
It’s hardly a secret that we’re obsessed with lists and rankings—the top this and that, from pop-music hits to films and athletic champions. The best x, the greatest y, the most influential z, or the most fascinating z-minus-1. Some of this is our carefully groomed celebrity culture—the media’s insatiable need for announcement and revelation, even (especially) if there’s nothing important to announce or reveal.
But we seem to have moved effortlessly into extending the adjective greatest with the deathless prepositional phrase of all time. When Muhammad Ali declared “I am the greatest” he was making a claim that was thrilling for all sorts of reasons, but none of them had to do with comparing himself with pugilists from antiquity. It wasn’t about time, it was about—well, greatness, and a certain kind of beauty that made the claim to greatness persuasive.
Let me turn from Muhammad Ali to the ridiculous. It’s no longer enough to be great, much less good. The most ordinary things angle for our attention with the promise of historical superiority. So PC World offers its readers a list of “The 25 Greatest PC’s of All Time.” Nerdy, possibly interesting, but do we need that of all time? At least there’s a century of mechanical ineptitude to bolster another site’s promised report on the “10 Worst Cars of All Time.” And automobiles seem like antique curiosities compared with the “Top 10 YouTube Videos of All Time.” Really? YouTube was born in 2005.
Compilers of these lists tend toward symbolic numbers—the best, the 10 best, the 25 best, the 100 best (of all time). The 100 Best Business Books of All Time is actually the title of a book, so I’m guessing it hopes to be No. 101. Rolling Stone cheerfully offers a list of “The 30 Greatest EDM Albums of All Time” (electronic dance music, please, not master of education). I like the “30”—it feels sober, reflective, and just a bit stylishly different from dull “25.” But Rolling Stone still felt the need to make that “of all time” maneuver.
Some of all time lists at least gesture toward that largish period of human endeavor before the 20th century, but the effort often feels doomed. “The 21 Best-Selling Books of All Time” (why 21?) lists Don Quixote as No. 1—“500 Million” [sic]—along with a Dickens novel and Dream of the Red Chamber, but the list might better be called “Harry Potter and Best-Selling Friends.”
Which points to what I’ll call the Cumulative Fallacy. There are more people than ever, more things made than ever, more things sold than ever, more measured, more counted. China is the nation with the largest population of all time. J.K. Rowling is the best-selling fantasy writer of all time. New Yorkers agree that the Dutch are the tallest tourists of all time. (Also the first, but they were shorter back then.)
Like college debates over the worst person ever ever ever, “of all time” lists are best enjoyed late at night. Because they were so appallingly earnest I miss the cavalcade of late-night TV commercials that promised you not only the best but the historical best of whatever was on offer. The best gospel quartets of all time, the best harmonica disco hits of all time, the best pet stain remover of all time.
Of all time isn’t about time—it’s about the desire for attention and the need to sell. It’s also a means of reassuring ourselves of our place in the world. Of all time usually means something as simple and down-to-earth as of today. And in that sense, the expression just may be timeless after all.