Some books are simply diversions, read and quickly forgotten. Others linger. In some way, large or small, they change who we are becoming—in the words of Stendhal—“an event in the life.”
Seven years ago, I decided that I wanted a list of the books that had become “events” in the lives of my friends—friends whom, as geography would have it, I couldn’t see very often. Sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen in rural Alabama, I made an initial list of about 40 names.
Some were, like me, graduate students in their early 20s. Others were in their late 60s. Some had never left the United States. Others had never been.
Two days before Christmas, I emailed them to request the “best book” they had read that year—regardless of when it was published. I said that no one would be listed with the book they recommended, thereby removing any social pressure to choose a “serious” book. They did not need to explain “why” it was a good book (unless they wanted to). After all, describing why you love a book can be just as challenging as explaining why you love a person.
After a few days, the titles trickled in. To my surprise, a stoic British diplomat who studiously avoided intimate conversation chose Nora Ephron’s “Heartburn”—a true story, comedically rendered, about a man who leaves his wife when she’s pregnant. Meanwhile, my goofy college roommate recommended a 400-paged biography of King Leopold—the Belgian ruler who oversaw the brutal colonization of the Congo.
I compiled all the books in a document, scrubbing names from each recommendation. Where my friends volunteered their favorite passage or scene, I added it in.
On New Year’s Day, I sent the list to everyone who had contributed, dubbing it the “Yearly Yeast.” Just as leftover yeast from a good batch of bread can be used as a starter for the next one, I hoped the list would fertilize the new year with ideas from the old.
Over time, the Yearly Yeast has grown in size—it now includes more than 150 people. Some are close friends, others are acquaintances. One person I met on an airplane. While I originally just solicited book requests, it has since expanded to include articles, podcasts and movie clips. Some people attach photos of art.
Perhaps as surprising as who has recommended what, has been seeing how often people with varied educations and backgrounds chose similar books—books which seldom appeared on the Times’ “must read” lists.
For example, last year more than four people recommended John Williams’s “Stoner,” a story about a poor farm boy in Missouri who is transformed by an English class and goes on to become a professor. It’s a short, simple book that confronts, in an unsettling way, what counts as a “good life.”
Though I don’t ultimately read or see everything on the list—I make a solid dent. And, on a dreary February day when life feels like it’s moving a little too slowly, the Yearly Yeast is a reliable guide to new ideas, new perspective and new “events.”
Here is some of the content from this year’s Yearly Yeast:
“The Gifts of Imperfection” by Brene Brown
“Grant” by Ron Chernow
Comics from @lizclimo on Instagram
“Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens
“How Life Became an Endless, Terrible Competition“ by Daniel Markovits
What books, articles or podcasts have become “events” in your life? Do you have any suggestions to add to the Yearly Yeast?
Image via Raisa Zwart Photography