When I was a child, I tormented my father with questions such as “Which is the best orchestra in the world?” and “Who was the greatest English writer?” In my childish way, I believed such questions were susceptible to unequivocal answers, and if my father, exasperated by my importuning, were foolish enough to answer ex cathedra, as was his natural inclination, I would immediately demand to know which was the second best and who was the second greatest: for it seemed to follow, according to my then way of thinking, that if there were a best or greatest, there must be a second and third best and greatest, and so on ad infinitum.

No doubt it is the inner child in us all that explains our continued fascination with, and trust in, lists: the world’s richest men, history’s bloodiest dictators, and so forth. It also explains why we continue to believe that prizes must signal some genuine worth in the work of...