Shaun Usher - Lists of Note is a constantly surprising A-Z of what makes us human. In its pages you'll find 125 lists with facsimiles or illustrations. Usher has trawled the world's archives to produce a rich visual anthology that stretches from ancient times to present day

Shaun Usher, Lists of Note, Canongate Unbound, 2014.

Humans have been making lists for even longer than they've been writing letters. They are the shorthand for what really matters to us: our hopes and aspirations; likes and dislikes; rules for living and loving; records of our memories and reminders of the things we want to do before we die. Just as he did with Letters of Note, Shaun Usher has trawled the world's archives to produce a rich visual anthology that stretches from ancient times to present day. From a to-do list of Leonardo da Vinci's to Charles Darwin on the pros and cons of marriage or Julia Child's list of possible titles for what would later become an American cooking bible, Lists of Note is a constantly surprising A-Z of what makes us human. In its pages you'll find 125 lists with facsimiles or illustrations, including:
1. A shopping list written by two 9th-century Tibetan monks
2. A handwritten list of the BFG's favourite words by Roald Dahl
3. The 19 year-old Isaac Newton's list of the 57 sins he'd already committed
4. Galileo's list of parts needed to build his telescope
5. Einstein's punitive list of conditions imposed on his first wife
6. 29-year-old Marilyn Monroe's inspirational set of New Year's resolutions
7. Martin Luther King's advice for black people starting to use buses
8. Johnny Cash's list of 'things to do today'
9. Michelangelo's illustrated shopping list
10. Advice for 'chick rockers' by Chrissie Hynde
And many, many more...

They can be the only way to get through the working day, essential for the supermarket run or a way to rank the best books of the year. Lists might sound prosaic, but the manner by which they order every part of our lives makes their authors intriguing, too. As Shaun Usher says in this swift follow-up to his equally engrossing Letters of Note, a world without lists would be a chaotic existence, a “world full of things, muddled and overflowing, without a sense of purpose or collective identity”.Of course, some lists are more interesting than others. Your list of new year’s resolutions might be fairly predictable, but Marilyn Monroe’s concluded with the achingly sad “try to enjoy myself when I can – I’ll be miserable enough as it is”. And while there is an inevitable emphasis on celebrity in Lists of Note - Kurt Cobain’s wishlist for the Smells Like Teen Spirit video is as revealing as Roald Dahl’s dictionary of new vocabulary (gobblefunk) for The BFG – Usher succeeds in teasing out normality in the 125 he picks. Kurt Vonnegut’s faux marriage contract from 1947, when his wife was pregnant with their first child, has a brilliant henpecked weariness about it: “I will hang up my clothes and put my shoes in the closet when I am not wearing them.” Johnny Cash’s “Things to Do Today” has “Kiss June” swiftly followed by “Not kiss anyone else”.           
Cash’s is the very first list, and within the next few pages all human life becomes apparent. There’s a ledger of George Washington’s slaves, Benjamin Franklin’s Drinker’s Dictionary (from “addled” to “very weary”), a shopping list by a 10th-century Tibetan monk (“one skin of wolf-hide for blankets”) and a list of suspects from JFK’s secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, written just hours after the president’s assassination: Lyndon B Johnson ranks just above the Ku Klux Klan.
An undertaking such as this is by its nature slightly repetitive: the mechanics of the editorial process become a bit too obvious in one sitting. But dipping into it, with Usher’s interesting notes and asides an amiable companion, is fascinating. One to put on your, ahem, Christmas list. - Ben East https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/oct/12/shaun-usher-lists-of-note-review-providing-sense-of-purpose

This is a beautiful, pricey, oversize book. (At least the copy I have is: it's published by Canongate and Unbound in the UK. I haven't seen the US edition.) It has lists made by a wide variety of people, from Robert Boyle to Susan Sontag, from Sei Shonagon to Noel Coward. Often it's scholarly as well as beautiful: Usher provides transliterations and translations, and the lists are reproduced in high-resolution photographs. Nick Cave's notebook looks like a precious ancient artifact. Some pages reproduce tattered sheets on papyrus and other materials--a shopping list written in Dunhuang, an Egyptian list of the meanings of dreams, a list of worker's absences written on a limestone ostracon. When Usher can't find the originals, he substitutes reproductions and photographs of the authors.
I bought this because of a long-standing interest in lists. (I've used them in several books, including a five-page list of words for failed art in "Art Critiques.") I was hoping for some insight into the aesthetics of lists, but in that respect Usher's book is a disappointment. His principal interest in lists seems to be their use in helping people organize and make sense of their lives. Sontag's list is a memo for herself on parenting; Coward's is a charter of friendship. There is also Ghandi's list of social sins,
Usher is also interested in lists that slightly disrupt our sense of artworks: for that there's Dickens's list of "available names" for characters, a list of alternatives to Rudolph (the red-nosed reindeer), and a list of Disney's alternate names for his Seven Dwarves.
But lists have a much more varied history (beyond popular culture and self-help) and there is a different reason for being interested in them now that Usher does not seem to care about. The first problem is historical: what are the histories of the list? And the second is critical.
1. The historical problem
It is reasonable to assume the list has diverse histories depending on its uses. A couple are represented, briefly, in "Lists of Note." Japanese literature might comprise one history in itself. "The Pillow Book" is mentioned in Usher's book, but it is largely disconnected from the majority of his entries, and from other Japanese examples such as Kenko. (Usher doesn't have a high-resolution color facsimile of an early edition, which may indicate his distance from that corpus.)
Another history might include lists drawn up by Renaissance humanists. Usher has two entries by Leonardo, but he misses Leonardo's Codex Trivulzianus, which is devoted entirely to lists. Rabelais would be a principal Renaissance source and precedent.
Artists' lists would be another lineage. Usher includes the Anthony Tommasini's list of favorite composers: Tommasini is a conservative classical music critic for the "New York Times," and his list is not interesting, but it is an example of a vast literature of artists' lists of their favorite artists. (Roger de Piles comes to mind as a premodern instance.)
Another kind of list, perhaps the most numerous, is the "laundry list"--business lists of trades, prices, employees, food, and so on. There are ancient lists in this book, but they play a minor role and don't fit well with the many entertaining popular culture entries. Ancient lists survive in many archaeological contexts and could have been a book in their own right.
And of course academics would always want to include the list Foucault attributes to "a Chinese encyclopedia" in "The Order of Things" (there is a good study of the source of the list, which leads through Borges but is still unidentified). Foucault's list stands in not only for epistemologically disordered lists, but also for surrealist juxtapositions in general.
These are random thoughts: I'm not aware of any historical reviews of the concept of the list. There is an essay by William Gass, "I've Got a Little List" (thanks to Dan Weiskopf for alerting me to this; it's in "Salmaundi," 1996), but I do not know any historical treatments.
2. The critical problem
I am more concerned with the fact that there is a different reason why a book of lists should be published today: experimental or "conceptual" writing is deeply involved in the concept of the list, and that is what could make a book like this timely rather than arbitrary. Usher does include one list by Georges Perec, but he seems uninterested in contemporary lists by experimental writers. The book "Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing" (2011) has enough such lists in it to count as an anthology of lists in its own right. (And it might have been a more interesting book if it had included the lovely color facsimiles Usher reprints, especially because conceptual poets are often involved in typography and layout.) Here's an arbitrarily chosen, incomplete list of examples of this different kind of list:
A. David Antin's "A List of Delusions of the Insane: What They Are Afraid Of" which begins:
the police
being poisoned
being killed
being alone
being attacked in the night
being poor
being followed at night
B. Charles Bernstein's "I and The," a list of words in order of their frequency in English, arranged into three-word lines:
I and the
to that you
it of a
know was uh
in but is
this me about
just don't my
what I'm like
C. Michael Gottlieb's "The Dust," a list of things found after 9/11, which begins:
UHF Tower Mast A
VHF Main Antenna Bracing, Southeast
Left Rear Wheel Assembly, Retractor
Radome Array
First Class Galley Convection Oven Number One
First Class Galley Convection Oven Number Two
There are hundreds more lists in "Against Expression," and several thousand more on the internet and published as artist's books and with small presses.
I don't mean to imply lists like these form a coherent, single movement, although the editors of "Against Expression," Kenny Goldsmith and Craig Dworkin, claim that they do. I think there's some basic work to be done distinguishing lists that have been made by contemporary writers with the intent of avoiding or erasing conventional writerly expressiveness (this is a claim Dworkin and Goldsmith make), and lists that have been made with the intention of recovering genuine expressiveness from the few places where it can still be found, such as dictionaries and apparently impersonal collections (this is a claim both editors also make).
"Against Expression" is deeply self-contradictory in its aims, but it is firmly contemporary. "Lists of Note" is genial, beautifully done, and entertaining, but has no special claim on history or the present except for the list's intrinsic power of cutting across cultural contexts.
3. Philosophical questions
Partly aside from historical genealogies and current critical questions, there could also be a philosophy of lists. Again, I don't know such a study. William Gass's essay comes close, and it's also, as usually, unremittingly poetic. One of his observations seems a nice point on which to close: "Normally," he writes, "lists are the purposeful coming together of names like starlings to their evening trees. They tend to confer equality on their members, also like starlings in their evening trees." - James Elkins https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1166957683

1. Review Shaun Usher's Lists of Note. Mention that Usher's first book was the bestselling collection Letters of Note.
2. Describe book: a list of 125 lists by everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Sir Isaac Newton, Gandhi to Kurt Cobain. Includes a list of JFK's potential assassins by his secretary, Evelyn Lincoln: "Lyndon…KKK…Hoffa…Nixon".
3. Suggest we live in Age of the List. Nerdy, Hornby-esque Top 10s: Best Albums containing the letter G; 40 Places To Twerk Before You Are 40.
4. Give some intriguing Usher examples. Hemingway's must-read books for aspiring novelists: War and Peace, The Great Gatsby, Wuthering Heights; 25-year-old Marilyn Monroe's ideal lovers; rules for writers by Kerouac, Billy Wilder, Henry Miller.
5. Lists are part of the creative process. Walt Disney's other Dwarfs: Biggo-Ego, Biggy, Flabby, Neurtsy. Chandler's list of similes: "Smart as a hole through nothing". Marianne Moore's possible names for Ford cars: Thunderblender, Mongoose Civique, Utopian Turtle-top.
6. Propose that 21st-century culture has made list-makers of us all. Twitter, email, search engines concentrate communication, news, gossip, football matches into lists. Note how lists shape prose style into Txt msg lyricism: dearth of complete sentences, death of definite article, abv-iation.
7. Usher includes writers – Calvino, Borges, Perec, Barthes – who know that lists can tell stories. Example: Perec's knowing account of everything he ate, which makes Karl Ove Knausgaard look forgetful. F Scott Fitzgerald reminds us that recipes are lists: "Turkey cocktail: To one large turkey add one gallon of vermouth…"
8. Some favourite lists. Johnny Cash's witty, moving personal dos and don'ts: "2 Kiss June 3 Not Kiss anyone else…", Swift's "When I come to be Old"; Harry S Truman's list of 38 wedding anniversaries as national and personal history: "June 28, 1947: Marshall Plan…A grand 28th Anniversary"; Edmund Wilson's curmudgeonly Won't Dos sent to pesky correspondents: "Read manuscripts...Judge literary contests…Give interviews…Autograph books for strangers". Usher notes Wilson "was soon inundated with requests for the list itself".
9. Lists of Note: 1. Splendid. 2. Addictive. 3. Sumptuously produced with interesting photos and facsimiles of actual lists.
10. Quote Calvino's book categories, eg: "Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified". - James Kidd

Shaun Usher, Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience, Chronicle Books, 2014.

This spectacular collection of more than 125 letters offers a never-before-seen glimpse of the events and people of history—the brightest and best, the most notorious, and the endearingly everyday. Entries include a transcript of the letter; a short contextual introduction; and, in 100 cases, a captivating facsimile of the letter itself. The artfulness of Shaun Usher's eclectic arrangement creates a reading experience rich in discovery. Mordant, hilarious, poignant, enlightening—surprise rewards each turn of the page. Colorfully illustrated with photographs, portraits, and relevant artworks, this handsome hardcover is a visual treat too, making Letters of Note an utterly distinctive gift, and an instant classic.

"While some might argue that the art of correspondence died with the advent of the internet, it was Letters of Note-a popular website sharing correspondence across history and spheres-that paved the way for the exceptional hardcover of the same name. The book's introduction aptly describes itself as "a museum of letters" that are as addictive as they are enlightening; featuring letters from Ernest Hemingway, Fidel Castro, Nick Cave, Elvis and more than a few world leaders.

London-based author Shaun Usher compiled the collection of over 125 letters over the course of four years and the subjects span both private and public theatrics. A letter from Elvis Presley to President Nixon is written in-flight on American Airlines stationary, in which Presley expresses his patriotism and requests to be made a Federal Agent, "just so long as it is kept very private." Each of the letters is accompanied with a contextual note from Usher that only serves to add to the fascination and potential rabbit hole of additional research readers might find themselves falling into.

"Funny, tragic, brilliantly incisive, historic, lyrical, romantic and studiedly offensive, this stupendous compendium of letters ancient and modern is my book of the year. You will never tire of it." – STEPHEN FRY
"...beautifully designed anthology..."

"Letters of Note is quite literally the most enjoyable volume it is possible to imagine. Every page is a marvel."

"The literary equivalent of a box of chocolates — bite-sized and pure addictive pleasure."

"There have been many collections of letters before this one, and no doubt there will be many to follow. But it is hard to see how Letters Of Note could ever be surpassed."

"...Usher’s compilation is hard to beat."

"...deserves to be this Christmas' runaway bestseller."

"A truly extraordinary reading experience [...] a mind-boggling, sumptuous hardback."

"...a gloriously presented compilation..."

"[Usher] succeeds wholeheartedly."

"...a book that entire afternoons will be lost in for years to come."

"It's a big, beautiful object. It is also wonderful to read."

"...remarkably well compiled [...] a hefty, luxuriously bound and designed work."

From Virginia Woolf's heart-breaking suicide letter, to Queen Elizabeth II's recipe for drop scones sent to President Eisenhower; from the first recorded use of the expression 'OMG' in a letter to Winston Churchill, to Gandhi's appeal for calm to Hitler; and from Iggy Pop's beautiful letter of advice to a troubled young fan, to Leonardo da Vinci's remarkable job application letter, Letters of Note is a celebration of the power of written correspondence which captures the humour, seriousness, sadness and brilliance that make up all of our lives.

The photos above are of the book's trade edition in the UK; more can be seen here

Includes letters from:

Zelda Fitzgerald, Iggy Pop, Fidel Castro, Leonardo da Vinci, Bill Hicks, Anaïs Nin, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Amelia Earhart, Charles Darwin, Roald Dahl, Albert Einstein, Elvis Presley, Dorothy Parker, John F. Kennedy, Groucho Marx, Charles Dickens, Katharine Hepburn, Kurt Vonnegut, Mick Jagger, Steve Martin, Emily Dickinson and many more.
From art to music, politics, history, civil rights and drawing on just about every human emotion, it's easy to get lost in the 342-page tome. Each letter tells its own stories and it is easy to find oneself interested in new subjects. Perhaps the book's greatest virtue (and that of correspondence itself) is its ability to inject individual humanity into historical events and time periods. One highlight is a letter from a free slave to his former master, kindly rejecting an offer of a job while inquiring about the family and describing his new life. These true stories-whether they're between household names or persons unknown-reflect the great importance of interpersonal communication and the beauty of long-form written conversation." - Cool Hunting

"While a good portion of history happened out in the open, allowing it to be preserved in the history books for everyone to read for generations, still more happened in the private correspondence of people who mattered. In Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (brought to you by the creator of the blog by the same name) you'll read letters spanning across centuries, from influential political leaders, authors, actors, murderers, and more. Each one lends a unique insight into the major events of the time, whether they're wars, cultural shifts, key moments, or important discoveries. This epistolary compilation contains over 300 letters, detailing the personal thoughts of everyone from Jack the Ripper to Kurt Vonnegut." - Uncrate

"This new book beautifully highlights fascinating letters ...The hardcover demands prime space on the coffee table."  USA Today's Pop Candy

"Someone should write a love letter to a new book called Letters of Note. It's a splendid collection of all kinds of correspondence through the ages: Elvis Presley fans writing to the president, children making suggestions to famous cartoonists, a scientist's poignant love letter to his late wife." - A Way With Words

"Reading through them is addictive, like dipping into a bag of variously tempting assorted candies, knowing that the next one will always bring surprise and pleasure. " - The New Yorker

"It's the kind of book you'll go back to again and again, and find something new every time. It's a celebration of what makes us human, and gathered together, they have a powerful effect. If nothing else, it will make you want to jot down a letter of your own." - Yakima Herald

"Every single epistle in Letters of Note is soul-stretching beyond measure."-Brain Pickings

"...an anthology of Shaun Usher's wonderful blog of the same name. It's well worth picking up."
Shaun Usher, More Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience, Canongate Unbound, 2017.

Jane Austen, Richard Burton, Helen Keller, Alan Turing, Albus Dumbledore, Eleanor Roosevelt, Henry James, Sylvia Plath, John Lennon, Gerald Durrell, Janis Joplin, Mozart, Janis Joplin, Hunter S. Thompson, C. G. Jung, Katherine Mansfield, Marge Simpson, David Bowie, Dorothy Parker, Buckminster Fuller, Beatrix Potter, Che Guevara, Evelyn Waugh, Charlotte Bronte and many more.
Discover Richard Burton's farewell note to Elizabeth Taylor, Helen Keller's letter to The New York Symphony Orchestra about 'hearing' their concert through her fingers, the final missives from a doomed Japan Airlines flight in 1985, David Bowie's response to his first piece of fan mail from America and even Albus Dumbledore writing to a reader applying for the position of Defence Against the Dark Arts Professor at Hogwarts.
More Letters of Note is another rich and inspiring collection, which reminds us that much of what matters in our lives finds its way into our letters.

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