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The joy of list-making

To-do lists, Top Tens, helpful steps, New Year's Resolutions… what is it that we love about lists?

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the joy of making lists

We love a list here at Psychologies, probably for the same reason as humans in general do – that promise they hold out to restore order to a chaotic world; to contain the answer to a problem if we only follow the five steps contained within them; or to let us enjoy deciding if we agree with the ranking system invented by the list-maker (who doesn’t love a Top Ten?).

Shaun Usher, clever creator of the online-phenomenon-turned-bestselling-book, Letters of Note, has gone one step further than the average list-maker and made a list of lists. His new book, Lists of Note, is a magnum opus of lists – 125 revealing, intriguing, funny, sad and downright odd lists written by everyone from Queen Elizabeth I to Johnny Cash (for the record, we prefer Johnny’s).

The chief joy of this book is the realisation that if you have ever written a self-condemnatory collection of admonishments to self (‘DO EXERCISES’ – Sylvia Plath) or a secret pros and cons list (‘Marry/not marry’ – Charles Darwin), you are not alone – in fact you may be in good company.

Marilyn Monroe’s list of New Year’s Resolutions from 1955, ‘Must make effort to do’ are a reminder of what an Everywoman she was – ever trying, ever failing (in her own head, if nowhere else). Woodie Guthrie’s list sits alongside Marilyn’s as a funny but sad set of ‘New Year’s Rulin’s’, among them ‘Wash teeth if any… change socks… read lots good books… learn people better’. I think we can all go along with those.

But even lists that at first seem to promise little to a modern reader can draw you up short. ‘Advice to young ladies’ from The Ladies’ Pocket Magazine of 1830 is full of the usual advice to women as to how to be demure and lovely, but finishes with the line ‘If you would live happily, endeavour to promote the happiness of others.’

Other gems? We grinned ruefully at number three on Kerouac’s ‘List of Essentials’: ‘Try never get drunk outside yr own house’. And if you’re ever tempted to burn your own well-meaning lists, pay attention to this helpful hint from the Immaculate Heart College Art Department Rules of 1967: ‘Save everything – it might come in handy later.’

Lists of Note (Canongate, £30) is out now

Photograph: iStock

More inspiration:

Read Jackee Holder's Have you got what it takes to become a writer? on LifeLabs