We’re No. 1, or No. 9, or maybe No. 42

Top 10 lists are everywhere, and Boston ranks high. But that may not mean all that much.

We are, for example, supposedly one of the coolest cities in America. Really! Forbes Magazine says so, ranking it ninth. You may wonder how this can be. After all, we’re impolite, stodgy, and not especially noted for our fashion. Nevertheless, the list-makers give us points for arts, culture, and recreation. We’re pretty good when it comes to restaurants, too. But the key factor is that a lot of young people live in Boston. The logic is as follows: Young people are cool, young people live in Boston, so therefore Boston must be cool. The flaw in that reasoning can be found in the city ranked coolest of all: Washington, D.C. No city that houses the likes of John Boehner and Harry Reid could be thought of as cool.

Perusing the world of lists, I note with delight that Brookline — the little community that many years ago refused Boston’s entreaties of annexation — ranks No. 3 on Movato’s list of the snobbiest small cities. I glory in this contrast with cool Boston until I run across yet another list of the snobby — this one from Travel & Leisure — and there’s Boston, at No. 3.


It’s hard to reconcile these two ideas: We’re both cool and snobby. Perhaps we’re so cool we put on airs about how cool we are. Or perhaps — and more likely — it’s the problem with list-making altogether. These compilations may be fascinating, but much of the process is humbug.

Get Arguable in your inbox:
Jeff Jacoby on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Lists have been around since antiquity. The first may have been the Ten Commandments, and they neatly illustrate the art’s pitfalls. Ranking is difficult — why is the prohibition on murder below honoring mom and dad, for instance? And how about the admonishments that never made it to the tablets? Many a parent would have preferred that “Thou shalt not hit thy sibling” was in there instead of, say, adultery.

Fast forward from Moses to the Internet and we now seem to have lists about everything: best beers, worst presidents, top nude beaches, you name it. Pick a topic, almost any topic, and you’ll find a list. And one of the most popular has to do with ranking the places we live.

Boston seemingly does quite well. Time Magazine ranks us ninth on its lineup of America’s healthiest cities. We rank ninth as well on the American College of Sports Medicine’s list of the fittest. Rent.com says we’re the fourth-best place to be single. Boston makes Budget Travel’s cut of the most beautiful cities in America, in part because we’re third on architecture firm RMJM Hillier’s list of best cities for design. Meanwhile, Parent Magazine rates Boston first in its ranking of best cities for families.

And then there are the lists we don’t make. We’re not on Law Street’s list of the most dangerous cities, thank God. Boston isn’t on GPS company TomTom’s list of the 10 cities with the worst traffic (a surprise, no doubt, to commuters on Interstate 93). Nor do we make the website 24/7 Wall Street’s list of the least literate.


It’s easy to get self-satisfied about all of this, especially with Business Week ranking Boston fourth in its listing of the top 50 cities to live. But then doubts and questions creep in. Rent.com may say Boston is a good place to be single, but another similar listing from the Wall Street Journal puts us way down at No. 42. Despite Parent Magazine praising Boston as family friendly, we somehow make The Daily Beast’s list of the 15 worst places to have a baby. And several researchers (including economist and Globe contributor Edward Glaeser) recently ranked Boston a lowly 38th on their index of happiness.

So what does it all mean? Not much, I think. Lists are an effective way to sell advertising — new ads pop up with every click — and they make for great conversation around the water-cooler. But in truth they don’t tell us much. If you’re not pleased where you’re now living, no list will persuade you otherwise. And if you’re enjoying life, don’t let a list lead you astray. The best piece of advice I can offer (or maybe third- or fourth-best): ignore them all.

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com