Synopsis: Everyone makes lists: shopping lists, to-do lists, Christmas lists, and many more. But what do your lists say about you? We talk to an author who looked at hundreds of lists compiled by the famous, the infamous and the unknown, and found out that they say a great deal about the times, our history and the list makers themselves.
Host: Gary Price. Guests: Shaun Usher, author of Lists of Note: An eclectic collections deserving of a wider audience.
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Lists of Note
Gary Price: Everyone makes lists. The idea of writing things down so we don’t forget or so that we can check them off when they’re done, or to simply stare us in the face until we finally do them is a practice that goes back to ancient times. That’s what Shaun Usher found out. Usher is the author of the book Letters of Note, a volume that looks at the written correspondence of many of the high and mighty as well as people you never heard of. In that book, Usher was trying to show us the importance of private correspondence; of how it could bring the broad themes and events of history down to a personal level, and how letters could give us insight into people we thought we knew. In the process of writing that book, Usher says he came upon another artifact that is also important and revealing.
Shaun Usher: I was looking through all of these archives and museum collections and dusty old books looking for these letters, and I kept finding lists written by the same people – even more so than letters. It seems that everyone, even to this day, letter writing’s on the wane, as expected by the rise of the Internet, but people still write lists. People are just as infatuated with lists as they ever were if not more so because we seem to be busier and busier, and list’s make all the chaos kind of manageable. If you can break something down into a list, it’s far easier to digest, it takes less time, so the busier we get, the more we seem to make lists and enjoy them.
Price: Usher compiled a list of these lists, and it became his new book Lists Of Note: An Eclectic Collection Deserving Of A Wider Audience. During his research on letters and lists, he says he noticed one basic and important difference between the two.
Usher: Letters are meant to be read by at least one other person. With lists, often they’re meant to be very, very private, so that they should you an even more intimate side of someone, and just being able to see someone’s preferences the way they’ve made a list, the way they’ve numbered it or dotted it. There’s so much to learn. It just infatuated me just as much as letters.
Price: Usher has lists from ancient Egypt, to medieval times, to the 19th century, to today. Many of them are lists from popular culture, such as Walt Disney’s list of potential names for the Seven Dwarfs.
Usher: Obviously it’s taken from the Brother’s Grimm tale, but the Brother’s Grimm didn’t name the dwarfs, so it came down to Disney to name them, and they came up with the lists of 50 dwarfs – some of which are hilarious. But it’s only because we’re now so used to the dwarfs that were chosen, I suppose, that the other ones that weren’t chosen seem so alien to us. It’s names like Biggo Ego, Biggie Wiggie, Clappy, Crappy, Puffy, Nerdsy, Wistful – some incredible names, but we’re now kind of lumbered with the ones that were chosen, but that they do seem really alien. I love lists that show you an alternate universe, you know, what could have been.
Price: One of those lists is from the film Gone With the Wind, and it deals with that famous line Rhett Butler utters at the end of the movie.
Usher: There’s another list about what is now the most famous line in movie history, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” At the time, this was obviously decades ago, the MPAA, the census deemed that the word damned was too offensive. So, the producers of the film had to come up with a list of alternatives to the line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” And some of them are terrible! Thank god that the MPAA relented in the end and let “damn” be used. But there are lines like, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t care” or “Frankly, my dear, it leaves me cold.” But when you get to the bottom, there’s things like, “Frankly, my dear, I’ve withdrawn from the battle.” “Frankly, my dear, the whole thing is a stench in my nostrils.” “Frankly, my dear, it makes my gourd rise.” Can you imagine if any of these had been chosen?
Price: Another movie-themed list are potential names for the film Vertigo. Usher says that Hitchcock wanted that name, but the studio wasn’t sold on it. They sent a list of possibilities to the director that just didn’t have the same impact.
Usher: Again, some of these seem terrible, but had they been chosen we would’ve lived with it. So, instead of Vertigo it could have been called Behind the Mask, Cry From the Rooftop, Dream Without Ending, The Face in the Shadows, A Life is Forever, Nothing is Forever, Now and Forever, The Phantom, The Shadow, Steps on the Stairs, Terror – that sounds awful –Two Kinds of Women, The Unknown, Without A Trace. But, yeah, Vertigo just seems absolutely perfect. I do think its just cause we’re so used to it now.
Price: Some film stars of the past made lists galore, and there’s one that might surprise you – Marilyn Monroe. We think of her as the blonde bombshell, all fluff and fun. Usher says that the list he found showed that she was disciplined and dedicated to her craft.
Usher: She was really hardworking, and yeah, I’ve read a lot of her letters as well. She was incredibly clever – very, very intelligent. This was in 1955 and she was just, just becoming famous and she was very, very determined to make the most of her opportunity. The list says things like, “Go to class.” These are her acting classes with Lee Strasberg. “Go often as possible to observe Strasberg’s other private classes. Never miss my after studio sessions. Start attending Clermont lectures.” She was incredibly focused, but then the saddest part of this list is the last line in which she says, “Try to enjoy myself when I can. I’ll be miserable enough as it is.” Which is really quite terrible. It just shows how she really did have a tough time. There were all sorts of demons she was battling.
Price: Authors are big list makers. In the book, Usher has a couple of lists by Charles Dickens that show his sense of humor and creativity.
Usher: He moved into his new house in Tavistock, and he had a lot of empty shelf space. I mean, he must have had a lot of shelves if he had empty shelf space, and he decided to fill that space with fake books. So, he made up all of these fake book names and wrote to a bookbinder and said, “Could you make up these fake book covers, and I’m going to have them on my bookshelf.” Some of them were really, really quite funny. There are things like Captain Perry’s Virtue of Cold Tar, Jonah’s Account of the Whale, Orson’s Art of Etiquette, Growler’s Graphology with Appendix, (four volumes) King Henry VIII Evidences of Christianity, (five volumes) Morrison’s Pills, Progress (two volumes) – it’s fantastic.
Price: Dickens was a prolific writer, and his books are full of interesting and carefully drawn characters. No wonder, then, that Usher found a list that show that the author was prepared whenever the inspiration for a new book struck.
Usher: The other Dickens lists – I was searching through an old book, I can’t remember which book it was. It was about something completely different I was searching for, and I found an entry about Dickens’ old notebooks in which he used to keep enormous, vast lists of all the names he could use in his book. They’re the most Dickensian names you’ve ever heard. They go on for miles and miles. These are character names – some of which we used, some of which weren’t. Robert Ladle, Jolie Stick, Bill Marigold, Jonathon Knotwell, Catherine Tewp, Birdy Nash, Plawnish Maroon, Brandy Nandy Stonebry, Meegle’s Panks, Haggish Provice Stiltington. It’s just the most Dickinsian thing, it’s just a lovely exploration of the English language really. All of these amazing names that just roll off the tongue.
Price: Lists are universal, and even ancient populations made them for everyday things. From around 1250 B-C, there’s a listing of excuses that Egyptian laborers gave for not showing up to work – including “wrapping the corpse of his mother,” “the scorpion bit him,” and “brewing beer.” Later in history, we see some very famous people that you wouldn’t think would bother with the day-to-day triviality of making up lists.
Usher: Leonardo Da Vinci, this was a shopping list he wrote. It’s a very short shopping list and he wrote it and accompanied it with all of the illustration of all of the food, so that you know there’s a picture of the bread, for example. But, it’s thought that his assistant who did the shopping for him was illiterate and couldn’t read. So Leonardo would draw little pictures so he could understand it. But it’s just an incredible thing to see something so everyday attributed to someone who we think quite rightly is someone so clever and important. There’s also Galileo. He wrote a shopping list once and it was all the parts with which he made his groundbreaking telescope, to make the lenses, things like ball bearings, and he went shopping and bought all of these parts and then changed the world by making this functioning telescope.
Price: Some of the lists are very sad, such as the one by Civil War nurse Clara Barton drew up of missing men.
Usher: So Clara Barton, who started the Red Cross in the U.S., but before she did that, she was searching for loved ones. Soldiers who had died in the war or had gone missing in the war, and every week in the newspapers in the U.S. there was this enormous list of missing person printed in all the newspapers and it was absolutely enormous, so I’ve kind of reprinted just one double page of this amazing list and it’s just these names of people – many of which were never found. Its just looking at it so vast, it’s this roll of missing men at the top and there’s a little letter from Clara Barton. It’s really quite tragic to think that the majority of these were probably never reunited with their families.
Price: Making up lists of “Ten Commandments” seems to be popular, and Usher said he could fill another book of just those kinds of lists. One notorious fraudster, Victor Lustig, composed a list of ten things the aspiring con man needed to master to be a success.
Usher: The interesting thing is a lot of these rules could be used by other people – not just con men. Be a patient listener. It is this not fast-talking that gets a con men his coups. Never look bored. Wait for the other person’s reveal of any political opinions, then agree with them. Let the other person reveal religious views, then have the same ones. Hint at sex talk, but don’t follow it up unless the other fellow shows a strong interest. Never discuss illness unless some special concern is shown. Never pry into a person’s personal circumstances – they’ll tell you all eventually. Never boast, just let your importance be quietly obvious. Never be untidy. Never get drunk. They all make perfect sense. They’re all great rules for a con man, but they could also be applied elsewhere.
Price: If lists are universal, then Usher should have a few of his own. None appear in the book, and he says there’s a good reason for that.
Usher: My lists at the minute, well, because I’m always writing, researching books and try to find lists and letters. I’ve got lists of lists. I’ve got spreadsheets. I can’t live without spreadsheets. I’ve got spreadsheets in which other spreadsheets are detailed. I’m drowning in spreadsheets. My wife, she can’t get up in the morning without making a list. She functions purely via lists. But mine, I would never make a book. They’re very boring, but they’re very functional.
Price: You can read the fascinating lists of the famous, notorious and some unknown people throughout history in Shaun Usher’s book Lists of Note available now. He also invites listeners to his website at S-h-a-u-n Usher.com. To learn more about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpoints online.net. There you can find archives of past programs, as well as on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.