10 Books for a Desert Island: Cecily Hill

10 Books for a Desert Island: Cecily Hill

Image: Off Mt. Desert Island by Fitz Henry Lane, 1856 [Public Domain] via Brooklyn Museum

We might think of summer, with its long days and children out of school, as prime reading season. But October’s longer nights and chilly mornings signal the kick-off for months of reading. After all, what is cozier on a cold day than curling up with a good book? Inspired by New York Times Style Magazine‘s and One Grand‘s recent series “My 10 Favorite Books,” we’ve challenged ourselves to name our own 10 “Desert Island” picks. This week, Director of Marketing and Communications shares herd.

Picking my top 10 books for this post was less difficult than I thought it would be. Though  one or two hard decisions had to be made, I’m a constant re-reader, and I’ve returned to the same books, time and time again, for years. You’ll find some commonalities in the list below: I gravitate toward long novels and nineteenth-century novels, so you’ll see no few of those. I like novels rich in the kinds of detail that make you see and appreciate the world anew. And, though I don’t care about whether a book ends happily, I do put a high premium on comedy – for me, laughter is the spice of life.

Charlotte Brontë, Villette

Villette exchanges fairytale happiness for isolation and loneliness – and a fiercely independent narrator, Lucy Snowe. Lucy knows what it is to be abandoned and forgotten by one’s friends. She understands that “travellers encounter weather fitful and gusty, wild and variable – breast adverse winds, are belated and overtaken by the early closing winter night.” She would be a good companion for a desert isle.

Image from 1895 edition via Wikimedia Commons

Title page to the 1895 edition [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Charles Dickens, Bleak House

It might seem strange to include a blistering critique of Victorian England’s legal system on my list, but Bleak House is far more. It’s one of the first mystery novels and, of all Dickens’ novels, the only one with dual narration – the story is told both by an omniscient narrator and Esther Summerson. I adore Dickens’s characters, and this has many of my favorites: Cady Jellyby, who marries a dance-teacher; John Jarndyce, who can’t bear to be thanked; Miss Flite, who names her birds Hope and Joy, Youth and Peace, Rest and Life, Dust and Ashes, Waste and Plunder and Spinach, among other things; and, of course, Esther herself, whose inner depths we only catch in glimpses.

George Eliot, Middlemarch

The first time I read this novel, I didn’t care for it. The second time, I decided I liked it. On the third reading, I fell – not for the characters, or the story, but for Eliot’s mind. Her attention to small domestic detail. Her sympathy for those who dream big and fail. Her reminder, at the end of the novel, that “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Jane Austen, Emma

I know I’m supposed to like Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion best, but my Austen-heart ultimately goes to Emma. Emma, “handsome, clever and rich”; Emma, who has “rather too much of her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself.” I like that this is a novel about practicing sympathy and learning to value education and thoughtfulness. That it’s funny is an obvious plus.

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

This novella, which follows one woman’s day in post-WWI England, is so beautiful that I could spend the rest of my life memorizing it.

Karen Thompson Walker, The Age of Miracles

The Age of Miracles, which was published in the wake of The Hunger Games, is a gentle, elegant dystopian fiction. Its basic premise is that the earth’s rotation has started to slow, and the novel traces the fallout through the eyes of a middle-school aged narrator named Julia. Crops start to fail; certain species begin to die off. But also, Julia’s friendships begin to shift. Her parents are less steady than they used to be. All in all, the novel is a bleak look at an alternate tomorrow and a tender contemplation of our world today – the age of miracles is, of course, our own.

Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones’s Diary

This 1996 revision of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is so funny that it still makes me laugh out loud – despite having read it no fewer than 10 times and taught it twice. Chain-smoking, perpetually-dieting Bridget Jones is much more human than her Austen counterpart, Elizabeth Bennet and that humanity keeps the novel fresh through every reading.

Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima

Bless Me, Ultima is a coming-of-age novel set in 1940s New Mexico. In it, young Antonio learns to negotiate between his mother’s and father’s vastly different expectations with the help of his curandera, Ultima. Antonio witnesses unhappiness and violence, and he struggles to reconcile his belief in traditional folkways with his desire to be a good Catholic. It’s a hard novel, one touched equally by tragedy, grace and the comedy that is part of any good human story.

James Baldwin, Just Above My Head

Is there anything more perfect than a Baldwin novel? And anything more hard to describe in a few sentences? Just Above My Head takes on issues we are still confronting: racism, homophobia, all those ways that we belittle, and demean, and hate one another. It is also a shimmering tribute to grief and love.

Oscar Wilde drawn by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec 1896 [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Oscar Wilde drawn by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec 1896 [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde: Stories, Plays, Poems and Essays

I suspect I’m cheating a little with this one – but it’s all in one binding, so it counts! And there’s much to relish in this collection. Wilde is at times uproariously funny; at others he measures, inch by painful inch, the depths of despair. His dedication to “art for art’s sake” belies his incisive social commentary. And it’s all in a good cause: without these tensions we wouldn’t have lines like “I could deny it if I liked. I could deny anything if I liked.

Further Reading:

10 Books for a Desert Island: Capria Jaussen

10 Books for a Desert Island: Jessica Isaac

The Element of Surprise: What Stories Help Us See

Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Hill is the Project Director, NEH for All at the National Humanities Alliance and former member of the Books@Work team.