I’m not a natural list maker. My mind doesn’t enjoy the decisiveness of a good bullet point, or the clarity of an efficient summary. The German publishing house Diogenes recently bought rights to The Pink Hotel and asked me to perform the deceptively simple task of listing my “likes” and “dislikes” for a slot in their magazine. I like swimming pools and eavesdropping, I thought to myself as I walked home after meeting the director. I like horror movies, crows, the smell of sunscreen. Sharp pencils. Toy soldiers. I don’t like: Monopoly, the word nubile, pigeons, the smell of roses. A telephone book sized catalogue came into my head, but when I got to my desk it seemed almost unbearably intimate, somehow, to write it all down.
I didn’t want to write a list.
Months passed. I decided there was something clandestine about a list, something not-quite formed, almost humiliating, like the scribbled first draft of a poem, or notes for a letter that you meant to destroy but didn’t and then found months later and tore up quickly. Lists are reductive, but revealing. I don’t like sunburnt knees, or numbers, or tennis, but the idea of a definitive list of these things made me feel nauseous. A list feels like sketching yourself and not doing a good job. I didn’t want to write a list.
A school friend of mine once filled an entire notebook with a list of her “likes” and “dislikes”, presenting this summary to her boyfriend as a gift that was part love letter and part crib notes. He never had to wonder if his girlfriend liked vintage porn, or roller coasters, or Nabokov, or soy milk (she did); he never had to ponder growing a moustache (dislike) or buying her Chrysanthemums (never). It seemed a very glamorous idea at the time, but it’s the last thing I’d ever do. Surely half the fun is guessing?
There’s a American magazine called FOUND run by the amazing Davy Rothbart, who collects found love letters, photographs, letters, photographs, doodles, hate-mail, post it notes, anything. My favourite finds are the wayward array of lists that make their way into Davy’s hands. “Never Call Landon again,” one letter says. “Get hair done”, “whiten teeth”, “no blow”, “Drinking only 4x a week”, “sex w/Chris Only”. Or another: “email Corey”, “introduce him to lesbians”, “convince self that I’m not madly in love with him”. Each list, even the shopping lists, are like miniature character bios, concise autobiographies.
Last weekend I came across the ultimate Likes/Dislikes list, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, in a friend’s mouldy garage. “Splendid things,” the Japanese court lady lists haughtily: “Chinese Brocade. A sword with a decorated scabbard. The grain of the wood in a Buddhist state”. Unlike telephone directories, top ten inventories on music websites, restaurant menus and dictionaries, Sei Shonagon writes lists that ought to be read out loud with an earnest yet flirtatious pout. “Words That Look Commonplace but That Become Impressive When Written in Chinese Characters,” she pouts: “Strawberries, A dew-plant, A prickly water-lily, A walnut, A Doctor of Literature, A Provisional Senior Steward in the Office of the Emperor’s Household, Red myrtle.”
I’m not sure what red myrtle is, but I know I like walnuts and strawberries and Chinese characters. Swords with decorated scabbards are quite cool too. I hate milky coffee and crowds, automated telephone purgatory, stilettos at one am, writing lists. I like Truman Capote and Roald Dahl, movie trailers, vodka. Easy. I’m getting the hang of this.