Revealing Your Life Stories, One List at a Time

My Ideal Bookshelf (Thessaly La Force, Little, Brown and Company, 2013) is a gem that I discovered displayed at the front of my local library—an impulse check-out, if you will. The authors approached a wide array of luminaries (writers, artists, chefs, and more) and asked them to list their ideal bookshelf: “Select a small shelf of books that represent you—made you who you are today, your favorite favorites,” they write.


They are quick to note that this is not your one-and-only, ideal bookshelf—“there is no ur-bookshelf.” Rather, it is a snapshot of you in a moment in time. “You could build an ideal bookshelf every year of your life, and it would be completely different. And just as satisfying.” And, of course, just as revealing.


The Lure of Lists

We often use lists as a narrative device in our heirloom books. When mixed in with longer stories of an individual’s life, they can be especially alluring for readers, and a fun way to offer a glimpse into a person’s opinions and life. Breaking up long blocks of text with shorter pieces helps with a book’s pacing—and, most importantly, usually ensures that a book will be picked up often, not abandoned on a bookshelf to collect dust.

And when someone visits with an heirloom book, they are visiting with its subjects, too—communing with the family, staying connected, continuing to weave the family narrative for the next generation. Why not give them some insights into you they’ll really want to read?


Your Own Bookshelf

Are you an avid reader? Then designing your own “shelf of books” that represent you might be a rewarding—and telling—endeavor. Check out My Ideal Bookshelf from your own library for some inspiration.

“We’re all still hunting, still hoping to discover one more book that we’ll love and treasure for the rest of our lives,” La Force writes.

Imagine that your future grandchildren are all grown up, now hungry readers themselves. Imagine they pick up your list: Maybe they find a book they simply must try. Maybe they find one they are curious about—and they begin a conversation with you about why these books mattered to you. Maybe your conversation becomes an ongoing one, each of you sharing your ideas about what you’ve read lately… Maybe a list such as this has a life of its own.

“Some people like to snoop through medicine cabinets, but that only gives you insight into a person's physical well-being. The books tell a tale about the person's mind.” —David G. Allan, CNN, “Why Shelfies, Not Selfies, Are a Better Snapshot of Who You Are”

Lists that Matter

What else might you explore in list form that is revealing of much more than the list might seem to indicate at first glance? (It’s worth noting that I am generally not referring to lists that include mere titles, but that include some elucidation and broader storytelling about the list—why choices were made, how the process felt.)

Here are a few ideas for meaningful lists from previous heirloom books we have done, and some we’d love to do for you down the road:

On Reading

  • My Ideal Bookshelf, 2018
  • The Children’s Books Worth Saving & Passing Down
  • Where I Get My News, 2017
  • What I Read to Feel Hope
  • Books I Wish I Had Written (and Why)
“You may not have a biography written about your life, but you have a personal bibliography.” —David G. Allan, CNN

On Travel

  • Best Childhood Vacations
  • The Places Our Family Returns to Again and Again
  • My Bucket List: Where I Want to Travel
  • Memories of Our Family Staycations (When Travel Cost Too Much but We Made Our Own Fun!)
  • Top 5 Places I’ve Ever Visited

On Music

  • My Ideal Playlist
  • Soundtrack, 1988-1992: The Songs that Shaped My College Years
  • Summer Sounds, 1972
  • My Happy Playlist: Songs Guaranteed to Put Me in a Good Mood

On Food

  • Top 10 Comfort Foods
  • Foods that Remind Me of Home
  • Foods that Transport Me to My Childhood
  • What Was in My Lunchbox, 1977
  • Recipes Passed Down through Generations (and How I Made them My Own)


  • All the Jobs I’ve Ever Held (Yes, Including that One-Day Paper Boy Stint)
  • The Scrapes and Bruises of My Childhood (On My Path of Adventure)
  • Fears I Have Overcome, and How
  • Habits I Just Can’t Break (Do You Have Them, Too?)

Other Themes to Explore:

  • On Cars
  • On Movies
  • On Sports
  • On Fashion
  • On Friends
  • On Hobbies
  • On Love
  • On Embarrassing Moments
  • On Life’s Challenges


A Little List Inspiration

Want to see how lists might take shape? 

The co-founders of Modern Loss, a website providing candid conversations about loss, each honored their fathers through lists last year. I think both of their lists are wonderful examples of how a form so seemingly simple can truly offer special—and engaging—insights:

20 Things You Probably Don’t Know About My Dead Dad by Gabrielle Birkner

“No, you can’t meet him. But yes, you can know him, through photos, scrapbooks and stories of those who knew and loved him best. Through me. And that goes not just for my children, but also for my husband and my many close friends who never had a chance to meet my dad. He isn’t just dead; he was so much more.” —Birkner


21 Things You Probably Don’t Know About My Dead Dad by Rebecca Soffer


How might we treat such substantive lists in an heirloom book? Well, here’s one example of a spread from a book of my own, also about my father.

The opening spread of a section of an heirloom book that uses a list format to tell family stories; view all eight pages below.

The opening spread of a section of an heirloom book that uses a list format to tell family stories; view all eight pages below.

Unlike the Modern Loss writers, my father is still alive, though I have not had contact with him in many, many years; this list, then, provides an example of how one might approach incorporating difficult or painful memories into your life story (not every story has a happy ending, after all).

Mostly, though, I wanted to share this to illustrate that lists can be designed in modern, captivating ways that truly draw readers into a life story:

Better Than a To-Do List

I admit to being an obsessive list maker of things I need to get done—and what satisfaction I feel when I cross things OFF those lists! But the next time you pick up a pad to jot down a list of tasks, consider using the paper to create a more meaningful list that preserves memories! What will your first list be?

I'd love to hear your ideas for fun lists, and even better—what’s on your ideal bookshelf? (I'm working on mine as we speak ; )