An essay on the career and influence of early radio DJ and entertainer, Jean Shepherd. Interesting to read about his contributions to mid-century counter culture and excerpted below is a section about his critical take on “lists”. Although the lists being discussed herein refer to publishers lists it is easy enough to extend the critique to our contemporary regurgitation by way of awful year end lists, click throughs and listicles. Noah Callahan-Bever might be right when he states, “People love lists. They’re the simplest and most immediate way to organize information and there’s nothing people enjoy more than having their tastes confirmed, disputed, and broadened”, but that doesn’t mean all these people are awake.
THE WAR ON LISTS
Around this time, Shepherd made a rare daytime trip to a bookstore. When he couldn’t find a book he was looking for on the shelves, a clerk informed him the book must not exist because it hadn’t appeared on any publisher’s list the clerk had ever seen. Shepherd was positive the book existed, but no amount of insistence on Shepherd’s part could budge the clerk from his certainty. This encounter would prove to be the fuel for the fire to come.
Years later Shepherd described the hoax’s genesis while a guest on Long John Nebel’s radio show—WFMU has the clip—saying: “I was new to New York, and I suddenly became aware that New York is almost entirely a city that really does run on lists.” But, he asked his listeners, “has it occurred to you that these lists are compiled by mortals and that they are human just like you are and, in fact, they have many more axes to grind than you?”
Take how bestseller lists get made. He described “the little guy” working at the newspaper “bored because for four years he was on obituaries,” all the big dreams of one day being a star reporter for naught. “And now,” said Shepherd, “he’s at this desk and all he does every Monday is call these little schlock bookdealers around town and says, ‘Well, what’s selling this week, madam?’” In their turn, the booksellers would have their own agenda, like the buyer who bought “500 copies of Who Shot John? three months ago and he’s got 497 of them now. ‘Why, Who Shot John is moving here, I’ll tell you, there’s nothing like it.’” All it would take, Shepherd pointed out, is for a few others to say the same thing and the book would make the bestseller list, and “all the people who believe in lists [would] rush out like mad and buy it.”
“The people who believe in these lists are asleep,” he reminded his fans. “Anyone sitting up at three in the morning secretly has doubts.”
He continued: “What do you say tomorrow morning each one of us walk into a bookstore, and ask for a book that we know does not exist?”