I think I have always loved lists. Perhaps it’s the way they sometimes neaten the most unlikely things; an order for the disorderly.
My interest in lists exploded in November 1975 in a bookshop at Bearskin Neck in Rockport, Massachusetts. Here’s Bearskin Neck in the snow. Lovely, isn’t it?
I happened to pick up a book edited by David Wallechinsky, his sister Amy Wallace and their father Irving Wallace. It was called the People’s Almanac.
I was 12 at the time – and flicking through the 1,478 pages I had that rare feeling of having got my hands on something that I just couldn’t ever let go of. It had 1,478 pages! It had everything in it. The editors had assembled all of their favourite things. All the almanacs I’d seen before this had ambits narrowed by something or other. Cricket, the seasons…
It had 1 million words, 25,000 major entries, 952 special articles. It is full of psychic predictions, conspiracy theories, alternative histories. Alongside essays on various subjects, The People’s Almanac also included a whole section on lists, including ‘people who became words’ (featuring Dr Joseph Ignace Guillotin, Rudolf Diesel, Etienne de Silhouette, John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, and Captain Charles C. Boycott), ‘the wills of various famous people’, and ‘locations on a map showing the course of Truelove River’.
I had no money in my pocket. My mum and dad had stepped out into the snow. It was the only copy in the shop and I could hear someone else at the tills asking about it.
I could probably work this up into a more terrifying anecdote involving a faked fire alarm, a plastic bag, singing a Christmas carol to two elderly people in cashmere coats, winning them over and paying in pennies, nickels and dimes, but easy fate made it mine (my dad trudged back and I begged him to buy it for me).
Having (OWNING!) that book was like buying a copy of the whole Internet with no search engine and without the cat videos. (I clenched it as tightly as I had clenched the copy of Tintin and the Explorers on the Moon that I spotted on the shelf in the library at Higgins Primary School. NB: these are two from the list of my top five clenches). Every page was a gem – well a bucket of gems. It was like riding into the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark and helping yourself to the contents of the crates. I spent months with my nose in that book, wandering from page to page, learning about early circuses, inventions that never saw the light of day, little-known extraordinary events from history, chance meetings between famous people and more. If Gabriel Garcia Marquez had wanted a book of magical realism source material, this would be it.
Then, a year or so later in Australia, I came across the Book of Lists. Same editors. Five remarkable messages in bottles. Ten famous people who died during sexual intercourse. The world’s eight greatest libel suits. Twelve people suspected of being Jack the Ripper. The top five worst places to hitchhike. Eight people misquoted by Ronald Reagan. Nine people with extra limbs and digits. Breeds of dogs which bite people the most, and the least. That sort of thing. I devoured it.
Since then I have been back to those books and their sequels many, many times. If you wanted to buy a chunk of the Internet, you’d have to pay, say, $30 billion, for Twitter. Our you could pick up a copy of the Book of Lists or The People’s Almanac for a fiver and do without all the cat video, SEO and X Factor stuff.
David Wallechinsky, editor of both volumes, led me off in other paths too. I wondered why his name wasn’t the same as his dad’s and it turned out that he’d visited Scotland and someone had said ‘welcome back, Mr Wallace’, which had nudged him in the direction of researching his family origins and reinstating his original surname. He also collaborated on a book with Michael Medved. Which led me to Michael….
Michael Medved, with his brother Harry, wrote “The 50 Worst Films of All Time (And How They Got That Way).” I bought this book. It was another list. The seventies were truly a golden time for lists. It’s a terrific book, although as cautionary tale it doesn’t quite work. Over the years I have sought out many of the films on the list and watched them, luxuriating in their awfulness. Plan 9 from Outer Space is in there. So is Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, as is Love Story. There’s John Wayne, too, as Genghis Khan. Each film is looked at in detail and there are sections with headings like “The Critics Rave” and “Immortal Dialogue”. For some reason I remember a line from Love Story. He’s at the bed and she has just died (spoiler, sorry). He says: “I’m a tough guy, see. I ain’t gonna cry.”
I kept my love of lists pretty active through my University years. Never a great one for small talk back then, on dates I’d list off the ten most unlikely names for capital cities or twenty surnames for Hollywood actors if they’d been known by their mothers’ maiden names (Sylvester Stallone would have been Sylvester Labofish). Anyway, perhaps it was the ineffectiveness of this technique for breaking the ice that moved me a discreet distance from my list obsession.
I’ve bought the odd list book since out of nostalgia, but until today it has been a bit disappointing. I’ve found bits of Schott’s books very interesting. But nothing has really fired my imagination in quite the same way. In the last few years lists have come in for a real kicking.
I keep my own lists, though I don’t put numbers in front of things. I put them in Moleskine books with black covers and gridded pages. After a few days quite a few of the lists don’t make much sense. This week I have:
Approach [cinema chain] and suggest they launch of a range of sweets with silent wrappings
Write to HW, KA, RCJ, BW, MRJ, parfumier about 140 (?)
Space suit hire
Did Britten own an Augustus John
Translucent / scrabble / futility / on the line
Make of that what you will.
Lists have been in the doldrums for a while, with a few notable exceptions. In the early days of the Internet, there was a bloke called Todd E. Van Hoosehear (I think that’s how you spell it) who used to assemble some good lists on things like “how to make ordering a pizza entertaining” or “ways to spice up a trip in an elevator”. I’ve made those two list titles up, but it was that sort of thing. They were very funny, but schadenfreude is an affliction of mine.
More recently, the excellent McSweeney’s has built a whole section of its website devoted to lists. My all-time favourite is: “Status updates since my mother became my Facebook friend” by Scott Harris. The top item on the list (by which stage I am hooked – always a characteristic of a good list) is:
Scott is making good, well informed decisions.
More recently, of course, we’ve seen those ghastly “10 ways to supercharge your entrepreneurial mojo”-style lists. Here are a few:
Top Ten #Creative Ways to Announce Your Pregnancy
Top Ten Dog-Friendly Cities
Top Ten Pac-Man Tribute Videos
5 easy ways to #supercharge social curation
5 ways to supercharge your #SEO with product information: webinar
5 ways to supercharge your #cleanse
I wouldn’t have bought a book of these lists if it had been in that bookstore in Bearskin Neck in 1975. It’s as if lists got a bit like flares, platform heels, body shirts and chest hair mousse did at the end of the 70s. Overdone, orverstretched, out of style. There’s a site called Wikihow which is worth a look, which I think is the one exception to list dumbing down that I will countenance. On Wikihow, for example, you’ll fine an eight-step guide to drinking a glass of water. These count as lists to me – they’re action lists – and works of a sort of futile poetry.
Anyway, today a copy of a new book of lists arrived. It’s compiled by Shaun Usher who did a splendid job with Letters of Note. This one’s called Lists of Note and it is filled with photographs and transcripts of the most amazing things. There’s Thoreau’s ‘Outfit for an excursion’, his packing list (‘old Kossuth hat’ has got me googling); Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Topics to be investigated’ (“what nerve is the cause of the movement of the eye”); Hilary North’s ‘How my life has changed’ (she was late for work on Sept 11, 2001 and the list chronicles the things she can no longer do: “I can no longer flirt with Lou, I can no longer confide in Lisa, I can no longer complain about Gary’) and many more.
It’s a beautifully put together book and every list makes my mind wander off in search of some new thing. It’s a renaissance for lists. Not a hashtag in sight. If it had been on the shelf at Bearskin Neck I would have had some extra begging to do.