It would be perverse not to succumb to the temptation to write this review as a list. So, the first item is how very handsome an object this book is: sturdy and smooth and substantial and full of white space and full-page illustrations (my favourite is Nick Cave’s homemade dictionary, which has two full pages). How much less satisfactory it will be in its e-form. This is somewhat ironic, as it had its genesis as a website, being a companion to the equally splendidly produced Letters of Note, such a hit last Christmas.
Item two is that it is just as engrossing as that former volume. Indeed, judging from the number of shared contributors — F. Scott Fitzgerald, Leonardo da Vinci, Einstein, Vonnegut — it is less a companion, more an offspring of the first. None the worse for that, however. Those aren’t bad contributors.
Item three: the defining characteristic of this book is its eclecticism. Dipping randomly (how else?), you may come upon Sid Vicious (a banal and therefore poignant list of his girlfriend’s best qualities, ‘What makes Nancy so great’), the Ladies’ Pocket Magazine, 1830 (‘Advice to Young Ladies’, obviously taken by Sid Vicious too: ‘If you sing indifferently, hesitate not a moment’) or Albert Einstein (somewhat less fond of his consort than was Sid of his: ‘You will undertake not to belittle me in front of our children’).
Item four is the instructive nature of the tome (for tome it is): ‘Those who flirt in haste oft repent in leisure’ (Anti-Flirt Club); ‘Respect women, parents and the nation’s laws’ (the Cowboy Code); ‘Try not to have a sexual relationship with the band’ (Advice to Chick Rockers, by Chrissie Hynde); ‘Do not discourage childish fantasies’ (Rules of Parenting, by Susan Sontag); ‘Never look bored’ (10 Commandments for Con Men); ‘Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed’ (Bertrand Russell); ‘Don’t discuss bloomers with every man you know’ (The Unique Cycling Club of Chicago, 1895); ‘Take things always by their smooth handle’ (Thomas Jefferson); ‘Remember to never split an infinitive’ (William Safire).
Item five: shopping. Tenth-century Tibetan monks had a wolf-hide, sheepskin and a purse made of camel skin on their list. Galileo needed soap and oranges, but also a bunch of stuff — ‘German lenses, polished’ — that might come in handy for making a telescope. Also included, mysteriously, is ‘privilege for the vocabulary’. What can that mean? Michelangelo was keen on bread rolls and anchovies.
Item six is a short sub-list, questioning the absence of, first, W. S. Gilbert. There appears to be only a single ‘singular anomaly’, in the person of Edith Wharton (her favourite books include two by the now unread George Meredith, but otherwise her list is unexceptional). Second there is no example of a Nick Hornby list, by which I can’t help feeling he will be a little put out.
‘Things to do’ must be the most common list title. The book starts with an example: ‘1. Not smoke 2. Kiss June 3. Not kiss anyone else.’ Not like my mother’s or my wife’s examples, I’m bound to say. It’s Johnny Cash’s. Nor like Leonardo’s: ‘Describe the tongue of the woodpecker and the jaw of a crocodile’; ‘describe the origin of man when he is generated in the womb’. Thomas Edison’s ‘Things doing and to be done’ is five pages long and includes ‘artificial ivory’ and ‘telephone working molecularly’.
Finally, there is plenty of advice and help for writers, commencing with what may be my favourite list in the book, entitled ‘Termes of a Kerver’. As with collective nouns — ‘a murder of crows’ and so on — it appears that there were very specific verbs for the act of carving meat: you break the deer, dismember the heron, tame the crab.
Benjamin Franklin provides a list of synonyms for drunkenness: you’re going to Jerusalem, you’ve been to Jericho — or merely just to France. Edmund Wilson adds ‘lit up like the Commonwealth’. The first word of the first draft of Roget’s Thesaurus is ‘End’. Norman Mailer’s list of his ten favourite American novels includes no Henry James. Kerouac has nothing to say, and says it in 30 unhelpful points. Original Mad Man David Ogilvy is better: ‘Use short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs.’ That’s it.