Marking Time, Book by Book

Marking Time, Book by Book

Note: We are delighted to welcome Cecily Hill, our new Communications and Marketing Director, to the Notebook as well as to the Books@Work team!  Cecily joined us on June 1st, bringing a range of experience in academia, marketing and social media – and a real passion for literature, reading, writing and popular culture. Her addition to the team strengthens our ability to drive and share our mission and to reach more readers! Please help us to welcome Cecily!

Since 2009, I’ve kept a Google document titled “Reading List,” which carefully itemizes, from one to forty-four, or sixty-six, or one-hundred and thirty, the name of each book I’ve finished and its author. Over these six years I have tried, and failed, to maintain a blog, a journal and a twitter feed. I have disappeared from Facebook for weeks or months in times of stress; were it not for my friends, I would have very little in the way of digital record posted there or anywhere. I can keep up and interact with social media for others, it seems, but not for myself. Instead, I have maintained this list, a record of my life challenged in its completeness only by my credit card statement.

But what kind of record is it, after all? On the surface, my Reading List tells little about me. An outsider glancing over it might guess that I’m interested in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; she would certainly, and erroneously, think that I’m obsessed with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I like the novel, but I read it often because I teach it often, not because I’m madly in love with Mr. Darcy.

For me, however, the list is an intricately detailed mnemonic. It goes much further than “i before e, except after c,” helping me remember people and episodes in my life with startling clarity. I remember eating a grilled cheese in a Hattiesburg, Mississippi café while reading Nicola Barker’s Darkmans in 2009 as easily as I recall discussing the book’s brilliance last February. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela reminds me of a long winter holiday spent stretched out in front of my mother’s fireplace. Susan Stewart’s On Longing recalls to mind the fatigue and frustration I felt one spring quarter in graduate school, while Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four reminds me, not just of the time my professor and I laughed over how boring I found it, but of every time I’ve met her for coffee since then. The reading list isn’t merely a linear itemization of the books I’ve read; it’s a constellation of my experiences and of the people I care for.

The list tells other stories, too. It tells of years-long relationships with authors and characters. It reveals times of stress, as I cycle through favorite books over and over. It documents my increasingly eclectic reading tastes: where once I tried to read “intelligently” (whatever that means), I now just read what I like.

The books have shaped me. They filter my every interaction with the world. A rainy day in Columbus, OH inevitably flings me back to the opening sentence of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” I can’t think of Toronto separately from Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. I worry about technology’s implications in terms of The Word Exchange. I’m careful when picking herbs out of my garden because I’ve read Wicked Plants. I’ve been altered by the lessons in empathy taught by such books as Nickeled and Dimed and Kindred.

The books have marked me. Stories do that. They influence our decision-making; they make us fear; make us hope. We measure our lives against them, and they change us.

And that’s why I’m here. Books@Work is a natural extension of the work I undertook while pursuing my PhD: exploring the impact books and narrative have on life-long opportunities and our interactions with others. It is such a pleasure to join you, and to help create a community of readers and critical thinkers—one that I hope will continue to expand both through personal interactions and on the Internet.

You might see some changes taking place here and on our social media. We aim, for instance, to post more frequently and to create content about books, reading, literacy, higher education and the public humanities that all can enjoy – of course, we will also continue to update you on our programs.

Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any suggestions or questions, either here, through our other social media outlets, or at

Image: Winslow Homer, Reading by the Brook, 1879. Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

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.