Sometimes, when Jessica Gross is in a funk, she makes a list of things she likes to cheer herself up. Last year, she began wondering what other people might put on their own lists and started a site, Things We Like, to document their answers. The site was a hit, and a branch of the New York Public Library is displaying some of her lists this month.
Jessica was kind enough to meet up with me on a recent afternoon to talk about the power of list-making, what makes a list extra special, and how she got her exhibit up and running.
What was the genesis of Things We Like?
I started the site in May of 2015. I am obsessed with making lists because I’m a very anxious person and it calms me. I was often finding myself making lists of things that I like to sort of remind myself of the fact that I have interests and that there are beautiful things in the world. I don’t know exactly why I thought that would be a nice website, but I just got a lot of joy from it and figured other people would get joy from reading other people’s lists of things that they love in the world. That was the very vague genesis.
I knew that I wanted the list to be extraordinarily specific. I had found as I’d been running the site that there are some threads of commonality that run through the submissions. Like many people like cool sheets, clean sheets, showers — cleanliness is apparently very important to people! I wanted it to be very specific because that just feels — maybe as a person who’s a writer and that’s just more interesting to me on an intellectual level — but it feels more emotionally evocative to read something super specific. In my guidelines for what people could submit, I tried to give them examples of what might be more specific.
I think the example I gave was: Instead of saying, “I love podcasts,” say, “Terry Gross’s laugh,” or something like that that would actually evoke an image or sound or something in people’s minds. I also didn’t want people to go on forever or make the lists really short. I really like uniformity — again the anxiety and desire to control — so 10 items per list seemed like a good number to me. I didn’t want to publish anonymous lists either. I just thought that if you’re going to put this up that you should just really own what you like.
I agree with that! The things we like are so specific to us that I think it’d be hard to discern what makes it “good.” Do you publish every submission you receive? How do you decide which ones to publish?
I don’t publish all of them. I try to weed out the ones that I think are the best. It’s not like all of them are exactly to my taste, but I feel like it might be to somebody else’s taste.
Have you found any particularly surprising items that people have put on their lists?
Something very surprising was one of my friends put down that she loves building IKEA furniture. I was floored by that response. One list that’s in the exhibit mentioned that the person liked the word “poo” which I thought was very funny, and she also liked watching her cats clean themselves. Another person put shaving in streams, which I loved because that’s just totally different from my life. This person lives in Wyoming, so I guess she does that from time to time.
Speaking of the exhibit, how did that come about?
Basically, I found out about the program from the branch of the New York Public Library that’s near me. I do a lot of work in there, and borrow books from there. I noticed that every month they had an exhibit where they would hang art from local artists.
I had been trying to think of what might be a good way to celebrate a year of the site being up and thought that this could be a really nice thing. I asked the library who was in charge of the exhibits, and emailed the planner with my proposed idea. This was back in November. She said that it sounded great but that they only had openings in August and December of this year, which is really great for the library. I am so glad that they have so much interest! That’s how it came about. It didn’t end up being tied to the anniversary month of May, but that was the sequence of events.
How did you decide how much you were going to show and how you were going to design the exhibit?
I had an idea of who I wanted to work with: an illustrator named Charrow, who I met through a friend, who’s a very lovely person. I just really adore her art work. The first thing I did was email her to see if she would be interested in collaborating, and she was! I went through the site and culled a bunch of lists that I thought would work really well; either they had a possibility for something that could be illustrated nicely or they just had enough specificity that it would be interesting to see them on the wall. Then Charrow and I met and went through everything. We looked at the wall and how much space there was and decided that 12 lists seemed like a good amount for the available space and chose which ones we thought would be great.
Did you have to put together a budget to do this?
Yeah, I just paid for it basically. Charrow took care of the paper and art supplies and I paid for the frames — we got the cheapest, like, $8 frames, possible. It wasn’t a huge amount, but unfortunately the library does not have a budget for this thing.
What has been the reaction to the exhibit so far?
They seemed pleased with it. I sort of promoted it just among my own social media feeds. People seem really excited to come see it. There’s maybe a third or less of people who don’t live here who are a part of the exhibit, who I don’t know, and some of them are sending emissaries to come see their list on the wall. It was really nice the day we were hanging them — Charrow and I hung them on the wall ourselves. We had a few of the pictures just sitting waiting for us to hang and this little boy was obsessively looking at this one image of a red cardinal. I saw a woman reading them, just as I was leaving the library, on the wall. I felt good about seeing the nice reception on that day. There’s a big children’s floor, and Charrow’s drawings are also kind of whimsical and I hope it will appeal to the kids too.
It’s kind of like watching people read your site in real time.