The Book of Lists

The internet crawls with millions of lists as stupidly attention-grabbing as “10 most shocking cases of anorexia” and as plain stupid as “23 Celebrities Who look Like Mattresses”. While this style of headline is one of the laziest forms of copywriting around, I’m not here to spume about shithouse prose.

This little beauty right here brought me right back to my golden age of reading. Those were the days when my sisters and I would pore over the dictionary, the phone book, the Bible, and, the far more influential and life-changing, The Book of Lists (1977) by David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace and Amy Wallace.

Were it not for this work of genius, there is no other way that I’d know the plastic coating on a shoelace is an ‘aglet’, the bottom of a wine bottle is a ‘kick’ or a ‘punt’ and that ‘phosphenes’ are those things that light up behind your eyelids when you screw up your eyes.

This book was pored over most days, with its irresistible lists like “12 people with heavy brains”, “25 of the world’s stupidest deaths” or more specifically “people who died in the bath”. We’d read it out to our admiring friends, we’d take it on holiday and we’d cover its pages with the Stewart Best Book Seal of Approval (an ancient family hallmark of Milo, Vegemite and crumpet butter).

The longest words in the world. The shortest. The loveliest-sounding words, like ‘mellifluous’ and the most discordant like ‘squelch’. ‘The worst films ever made’ only added fuel to our consuming enthusiasm for bad films and bad acting. A particular favourite was the ‘Ghosts and Supernatural’ section, which numbered some of the spookiest hauntings ever to occur in the British Isles.

We’d puzzle over Americanisms we had no hope of finding out about, like “most novel penalties by a wide receiver in the 1972 Superbowl” (were they talking about a sport? Is that sentence even English??). We’d also brood over over the photo of author Amy Wallace as a child, wearing a fur coat and a haughty expression.

I think it’s funny that for a connoisseur of lists, the internet is the world’s biggest Sizzler. Everyone’s hungry for content, and apparently the world loves a bullet point. Yet of the thousands of lame lists I can see online (“best Britney Spears meltdowns from 1995 onwards” and “most ghetto letterboxes”), none seem to stick in the old brainbox for any period of time.

The lists from The Book of Lists, however, will sometimes be brought up today in conversation to trump any verbal joustery, without even realising what the source is. I’m even getting a little happy buzz thinking about the sight and fusty smell of our dog-eared copy. Whether the ability to remember that Lord Byron had a 5-pound brain (a meaningless measurement to one brought up using the metric system) ever comes in handy, thanks to The Book of Lists I’ll be remembering it to my dying day.

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