Changing lives – making lists and having fun

December 12, 2017 at 3:19 am | Posted in Christmans presents, libraries, list-making | Leave a comment
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Why write?

‘It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by.’ I’ve quoted Vita Sackville West before but this bears repeating. Writing or any activity that produces something will prevent that feeling of empty past days. But it should also be remembered that Vita Sackville West probably had servants. So if she didn’t write on a given day, perhaps she could do nothing if she felt like it.

Few of us have that luxury now. The days of most people, even if they’re wealthy, are filled to overflowing with too many things to do. (I’ve met two super wealthy people and even at a dinner out I never saw them relax – they’re always on the mobile, checking some crisis in the China factory or whatever.)

There’s another quotation I like:

‘Lists are the butterfly nets that catch my fleeting thoughts…’ by American blogger Betsy Canas Garmon.

(She doesn’t get an URL because there’s a cliché in her opening gambit, on her slightly New-Age site, but I do like that quotation.) We might not be up to writing or creating art on any given day but no matter how busy or uninspired we feel, we can always write lists. I mean, apart from a To-Do list or a shopping list: a list that is more creative and inspiring, and fun.

Such a list could evolve into a short story, blog, essay or even a book! At the very least it could help you appreciate life more and bring back to memory some of its richness.

You could write a list of your favourite songs. I thought of this because I came across an old New Yorker (12-19 July 2004) with this quotation from American playwright Ben Hecht:

‘Old songs are more than tunes. They are little houses in which our hearts once lived.’

It teeters on the edge of sentimentality but I think it’s strong enough to avoid that charge and can stand up and be counted as a statement of fact and well-earned feeling.

Best books and possible presents

You could list the best books you’ve read recently (and it could double as a Christmas present list, assuming delivery in less than two weeks, which is feasible). Mine would include:

Maggie O’Farrell. I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen brushes with death (Headline, 2017)

Johann Hari. Chasing the Scream: The first and last days of the war on drugs. (Bloomsbury, 2015)

Judith White. Culture Heist: Art versus money. (Brandl & Schlesinger, 2017)

Peter Timms. What’s Wrong with Contemporary Art? (UNSW Press, 2004)

These four are all riveting, beautifully written, brave books. Just rush out and buy them – or sit at your desk and order them, new or second hand, or borrow from the library.

No favourite novels in that list? Let me think:

Cathleen Schine. They May Not Mean To But They Do (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrah, Straus & Giroux, 2016)

Cathleen Schine. The Three Weissmanns of Westport (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrah, Straus & Giroux, 2010)

Maggie O’Farrell. The Hand that First Held Mine (Headline, 2009)

Dave Eggars. Zeitoun (McSweeney’s, 2009)

Deborah Maggoch. In the Dark (Chatto & Windus, 2007)

Andrea Goldsmith. The Memory Trap (HarperCollins, 2013) see

What about short stories? Stephanie Buckle published a fine collection of short stories, Habits of Silence (Finlay Lloyd, 2017), which was launched by John Clanchy, himself a fabulous, award-winning short story writer and novelist –

Other lists?

What about listing three things you’ve never done and are proud of not having done? Mine? I’ve never mown a lawn; never ironed a man’s shirt (unless I were about to wear it myself); never washed a car.

Make what you wish of those. A friend’s husband’s list is: never tried folk dancing, never worn a brown suit, never tried incest.

Before the internet I thought of starting a small business by telephone called Dial-an-Alibi. I could supply a list of plausible excuses for any occasion – or rather, missed occasion. I could write a list of best lies here but time precludes it.

More obviously you could list three achievements of which you are most proud, but it’s a bit too obvious, too much like a self-help quiz. What about favourite poets? Favourite painters? Favourite musicians? Colours? Pick-up lines? Smells?

You could write a blog – or a book – on any one of these. I loved Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses, which is of course about more than the sense of smell. Eric Rolls (1923-2007) wrote A Celebration of the Senses. They’re both beautiful books. More recently Ackerman wrote The Zoo Keeper’s Wife (2007 – the film of it was released this year). She’s a poet too, like Rolls was. Even their prose reads like poetry. Because libraries have given me so much I’ll quote Ackerman on them: ‘Libraries change lives. They are the soul of a people.’

Libraries also help with the space problem.

This leads naturally to the best book on organisation of space: Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Ten Speed Press, 2014; see my 2 Nov. 2015 blog on it) and her later book, Spark Joy (Vermilion, 2016).

The best story about the latter book was the woman who followed the book’s philosophy – get rid of whatever is in your home that doesn’t give you joy – and she got rid of her husband.

Interesting …

Maybe the reviewer made that up. Maybe the couple reunited and he made an effort to give his wife joy again the way he used to. There’s a novel in there. Nick Hornby wrote a novel that makes comic use of lists: High Fidelity (Gollancz, 1995). Stephen Frears’ film of it with the same name was excellent too, with John Cusack playing the record shop owner who compulsively makes lists. You can very probably get both book and DVD from your local library, as I can from mine.

The protagonist chose five as the magic number for lists. Margaret Throsby’s old ABC FM radio program allowed her interviewees to choose only five favourite pieces of music. My five would be: Carl Orff’s Street Song, Schubert’s Trout Concerto – the little Intermezzo in it particularly – and the Intermezzo in Bizet’s Carmen, Mozart’s Flute and Harp Concerto and the Flower Duet in Delibe’s Lakme, which I first heard in the film, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, directed by Canadian filmmaker Patricia Rozema – see

Favourite films would take another whole post. Critics famously have their Top Ten. They could be for all time, or just the past year. Good luck with the latter if you’re not 18 to 25, the demographic that films (at least American) are aimed at. This explains a lot.

The last word can go to Siimon (no, it’s not a typo) Reynolds, whose book Why People Fail (Wiley, 2012) advises us to list not just pros and cons when making decisions but a third column, so you weigh up Positive, Negative – and Interesting.

Without doing this in a systematic way I’ve often leant towards ‘Interesting’ – and it has led to not a good living, but a good – well, at least a definitely interesting – life, and I don’t mean in the Chinese curse sense.

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