In the mid to late ’90s, I burned a lot of time in front of one computer or another, and a large amount of this time was spent within the confines of MS-DOS. It’s obviously not the best operating system around, but it’s what my first PC had, and it was simple and straightforward once you knew the commands and were familiar with the little nuances.

LIST is a file viewing and browsing utility written by Vernon D. Buerg, who died in December 2009. It’s simple enough. You type LIST at the command line and a nice, columned view of all the files in that directory fill the screen. You navigate between files and directories by using the arrow keys to move the cursor around. Hitting enter on a directory enters that directory, while hitting enter on a file opens that file up for viewing. Hitting the ESC key goes back to the file listing or back to the command line, depending on whether you’re viewing a file or not. There are also other commands, such as hitting E to edit the file using EDIT.COM, Microsoft’s DOS text editor.

Viewing files in LIST

This program was great when having to sort through several files and view their contents, especially text files. Just hit enter on the text file and the text immediately displayed on the screen, then hit the arrow keys or PGUP/PGDN to scroll through the file contents. Hit ESC to go back and browse through the other files in the directory.

One nice thing about LIST is that it shows the file regardless of whether it’s a text or binary file. In modern operating systems and desktop environments, this isn’t generally the case. This allows you to check for text strings within the binary that can give you a useful indicator of what the binary file is and does. An example of this being handy is in the case of some old DOS games. Some of these may have had music that was in, say, MOD format, but the music files would be named something like MUSIC00.MUS. By using LIST, you would be able to see the file’s header string and determine that yes, this is a MOD file, and now you can rename it to MUSIC00.MOD and open it up in your tracker of choice.

The header string for a DOS executable is “MZ”

Of course, now a program like this may be seen as (and probably is) a relic of the past. It’s a great example of the “do one thing and do it well” philosophy, though, and its capabilities haven’t really been replicated in any other utilities I’ve come across for modern OSes like Mac, Linux, and Win 7.

LIST’s primary job is in its name: to list files. It does that job efficiently and doesn’t get in the way. So thanks to LIST for all those nostalgic, rose-tinted memories of sitting in front of a screen of brightly lit text on a black background for hours on end, reading text files, rummaging through subdirectory after subdirectory, and checking to see if that .GSZ file is really an .EXE.