Diary: Ian Frazier, On Lists

I started to write for a living before I knew how to write, so I did what came easiest—I wrote lists. The first piece I sold as a free-lance writer, at the age of twenty-three, appeared in Harper’s Magazine forty-six years ago. It consisted of a list of the names of the fishing lures for sale at the Abercrombie & Fitch store in midtown Manhattan. Back then Abercrombie sold fishing and hunting equipment along with clothes. I went through its fishing department and looked at the lures and wrote down their names (the Abu-Reflex, the Shyster, the Jitterbug, the Hula Popper, etc.). Beyond a few lines describing where I’d seen these lures, the piece was just the list, no more than six hundred words. Below the title the editors put “compiled by Ian Frazier” instead of “by Ian Frazier,” which annoyed me. I didn’t “compile” the list, I wrote it.

Everything I did then came out as a list. The New Yorker hired me as a reporter for the magazine’s Talk of the Town department and I turned in one list after another. George W. S. Trow, who was eight years older than me and had been at the magazine at least that much longer, once showed me a list method he used. He attended events he wanted to cover, took lots of notes, and then circled his favorite facts or quotes or observations in his notebook in red pencil. Then he rated the circled items, starting with the one he liked the best, then the second best, and so on, and structured the piece in reverse order, going from his least favorite to his most favorite, which anchored the piece at the end like a punchline.

The list, as a literary device, fit with the precepts of later modernism. A list could be a modernist collection of shards that the readers assembled for themselves, the way one does with a book like Ulysses in an attempt to figure out what is going on. Although I don’t know if Vladimir Nabokov counts as a modernist, he wrote what is perhaps the funniest short list of recent times. In Lolita, Humbert Humbert mentions that his mother died unexpectedly when he was young, and he offers, in passing, this explanatory aside: “(picnic, lightning).” The poet Billy Collins later used “Picnic, Lightning” as the title of a poem and of a collection of poems. The two words demonstrate what a list should do. You have a sequence of apparently unconnected things and then a sudden flash connects them.

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Rereading Tom Sawyer recently I saw that almost the first line Huckleberry Finn speaks when he enters American literature is a list. Walking down an alley Tom happens to run into Huck, who is carrying a dead cat by a string. Tom admires the dead cat and asks Huck where he found it. Huck says he traded for it, and Tom asks what he traded. Huck says, “A blue ticket and a bladder that I got at the slaughterhouse.” To appreciate the joke, one has to know that “blue tickets” were prized tokens given to Sunday school students for memorizing the verses of the Bible. In Huck’s list, the spark that jumps from the Sunday school to the slaughterhouse knocks you into a different world.

The Bible itself sometimes seems to be nothing but lists. I remember in my own Sunday school days being told we could skip the Old Testament sections known as “the Begats”—the lists of who was the son of who was the son of who. Nowadays I don’t skip the Begats, or any Bible lists. Sometimes I imagine people on the American frontier going through lists of Bible names looking for ideas of what to call their children. Most names in the Bible weren’t practical to use in English, and the best ones, like David and Rebecca and Sarah and Joseph and Benjamin, had already been used a lot. That may have left the parents-to-be culling leftovers from places like this:

To Eber were born two sons: the name of the one was Peleg … and his brother’s name was Joktan. Joktan fathered Almodad, Sheleph, Hazarmaveth, Jerah, Hadoram, Uzal, Diklah, Obal, Abimael, Sheba, Ophir, Havilah, and Jobab; all these were the sons of Joktan. (Gen. 10, 25–29)

Not a lot of promising baby names there, though I’m sure a few frontier guys ended up with one or another of them. The names in the Begats may refer to actual people who once walked the earth. If so, these lists are also a kind of miracle, considering that essentially all of the other countless billions of ordinary human beings who ever lived have been forgotten.

Sometimes a Bible passage resembles an invoice—this list of objects in the temple of Solomon, for example:

So Solomon made all the vessels that were in the house of the Lord: the golden altar, the golden table for the bread of the Presence, the lamp-stands of pure gold, five on the south side and five on the north, before the inner sanctuary; the flowers, the lamps, and the tongs, of gold, the cups, snuffers, basins, dishes for incense, and fire pans, of pure gold; and the sockets of gold, for the doors of the innermost part of the house, the Most Holy Place, and for the doors of the nave of the temple. (1 Kings 7:48)

With their ordinariness and one-for-one correspondence to reality, lists can be a powerful preservative. When I read that list I can smell the temple of Solomon.

Years ago, I interviewed a union leader in the Bronx who happened to have been born in the Dodecanese Islands, off the coast of Greece. I asked him if the particular island he’s from was ever mentioned by any classical Greek authors and he said, in his Bronx accent, “Oh, yeah—we sent two ships to the Trojan War.”

I checked in the second book of the Iliad, where Homer recites the famous Catalogue of Ships. Sure enough, my informant’s island, Kasos, appears in it. This long list loads the poet’s story at the beginning, naming the Greek forces and their leaders as they sail for Troy. The detailed enumeration—place by place, hero by hero—portends the huge collision ahead.

It might be possible to compile a list of the all-time-greatest literary lists. The Catalogue of Ships would be a shoo-in for that. But I prefer to run through an unsystematic recital of my favorites off the top of my head: “All Gaul is divided into three parts,” the first line of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, lets us know we’re in for some lists. He gives us the tribes of the Gauls, and of the Helvetii, and of the Germani, and more; Caesar knew his tribes. Then there’s the list of weird and horrifying witches-brew ingredients that the witches chant in Macbeth, and the expansive lists of Walt Whitman (our all-time-greatest lister), and the list of miscellaneous stuff in a drawer in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the list of the guests who came to Gatsby’s parties that Nick Carraway keeps on a railway timetable, and the list of different kinds of thunder in Max Frisch’s Man in the Holocene, and the list of the errors that the narrator of Jamaica Kincaid’s short story, “Girl,” must avoid so as not to become, in her mother’s words, “the slut you are so bent on becoming.” I could go on. My list of lists is probably endless.

An appreciation of lists can’t be too rigorous about genre or format, and an affecting list doesn’t have to be in a book. Whenever I go to Washington, DC, I visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The list of the names of American casualties, inscribed on its long descending swath of marble, is one of the strongest commentaries ever written about the Vietnam War.

A friend of mine has a granddaughter who reads all the time but has trouble writing stories. This confuses and frustrates her. I sympathize, because I suffer from the same problem. The stories I make up usually seem too ridiculous to think about. My advice to the grandmother would be to get this nonfictionally-inclined girl to write lists instead. Making lists is an ancient and noble art. For starters, since she’s only eight, she could even compile them.

Ian Frazier writes lists, essays, fiction, and humor and is a staff writer at The New Yorker. The most recent of his eleven books is Hogs Wild: Selected Reporting Pieces. He is at work on a book about the Bronx.

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Image: Detail from the Chronological Chart of Ancient, Modern and Biblical History (1871) by Presbyterian missionary Sebastian C. Adams