A lust for lists: Michelangelo, Johnny Cash, Anne Frank, Chrissie Hynde, JFK's secretary - they all made them, as a new book reveals

Shaun Usher's Lists of Note book is to be published later this year and will be filled with 125 lists written by all manner of people, from 2600BC to the modern day

A few years ago, as I was rummaging through various archives, museums, books, and personal collections around the world in search of the correspondence of famous strangers, I very quickly noticed a different kind of artefact popping up with regularity.

Almost every person I researched had at least one list to their name, whether it was a shopping list, wish list, list of favourites, list of rules, list of predictions, list of resolutions, list of names. Everywhere I turned, a list of some kind was to be found — many, unsurprisingly, were mundane, but some were so fascinating as to be irresistible.

The first list to truly convince me that I should one day dig deeper was a charming to-do list written by the great Johnny Cash. It made me love him even more than I did already. It read as follows:


1. Not smoke
2. Kiss June
3. Not kiss anyone else
4. Cough
5. Pee
6. Eat
7. Not eat too much
8. Worry
9. Go see Mama
10. Practice piano

Notes: Not write notes

On reading it, I was instantly convinced of the following:

1. Johnny Cash was not the only person ever to have produced such greatness in list form.
2. I must quickly forget all about lists and finish the Letters of Note book.
3. I must then, and only then, research and write a Lists of Note book.

Civilian lists: JFK's secretary's list of possible assassins Civilian lists: JFK's secretary's list of possible assassins
And so, later this year, the Lists of Note book is to be published. It will be filled, as the name suggests, with lists – 125 in total – written by all manner of people, from 2600BC to the modern day. A treat for those who love lists, and for those who don't.

It will contain a shopping list written by Michelangelo in 1518, illustrated for the benefit of his assistant who was unable to read; Anne Frank's handwritten list of pseudonyms for her family, to be used in her diaries to protect them; a list of murder suspects, scribbled by the long-serving secretary to John F. Kennedy mere hours after the president's assassination; an inconceivably short list of words given to Dr Seuss by his publisher, from which he was to write The Cat in the Hat; French novelist George Perec's magnificent "Attempt at an Inventory of the Liquid and the Solid Foodstuffs Ingurgitated by Me in the Course of the Year Nineteen Hundred and Seventy-Four"; Galileo's list of all the pieces of equipment he needed to produce his ground-breaking telescope; and a list of advice written by The Pretenders' singer Chrissie Hynde for the benefit of "chick rockers".

So, why lists? Where does the appeal come from? I made a list.

1. Life is chaotic, often unbearably so. Neat, ordered lists bring relief and hope.
2. Lists can make even the laziest of us more productive.
3. Lists enable us to rate things and make us feel knowledgeable, which we love.
4. Lists are so very easy to digest for the time-starved, eternally busy reader.
5. Humans feel it necessary to categorise all things, for safety reasons.

(These are arranged in no particular order.)

Can a list ever be as moving as a letter? They're completely different but then again they're quite similar. A list can be very telling. They are not for other people's eyes; they're personal. It can also be very interesting to see where people rank things in a list; why they've put certain things at the top. It reveals a lot about people's natures.

I love finding lists of possible names, for instance when someone is thinking up a title for a book that has now become famous; it's interesting to see what things could have been called. I came across a list by Robert May, who wrote Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer many years ago. He hand-wrote a list of potential names for Rudolph, such as Rolo and Rudy. It's funny to imagine how things could have been if these lists hadn't been fleshed out as much as they were.

It might sound strange, but I don't really make lists myself – although I am a big fan of spreadsheets, if that counts. My wife, however, is a serious list-maker. She can't really function without writing one down. Everything has to be ordered, and she makes sense of the chaos of the day ahead by making a list, whereas I tend to muddle through. She keeps lists of everything: to-do lists; bills to pay; things to be done to the house; lists of lists.

One of my latest finds is a to-do list by Abraham Lincoln. It's compelling to discover that such an important figure, who is associated with such powerful words, did something so everyday and mundane.

Whereas with Letters of Note, I was dealing with a dying art, with Lists of Note I see no such problem. For as long as there are things, we humans will endeavour to arrange, sort, categorise, and rate them.

'Lists of Note' is available to pre-order from unbound.co.uk/books/lists-of-note

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'