Emma Holland and Natalie Coppa met while attending college at the University of Miami. Emma is a writer, runs programming at The Wing, and is the co-founder of the vitally relevant and helpful Repro Rights zine. Natalie is a data analyst and mathematician who recently launched The Upside, a consulting firm that aids businesses in organizing and understanding their data in an approachable manner (Natalie describes this process as reading the "story" behind numbers - talk about a genius way to help linguists better understand numbers!). Besides being two talented, driven women, both happen to be native New Yorkers and avid Nora Ephron fans*. They're also inseparable.
Girls at Library: Why do you read?
Emma Holland: We actually read for really different reasons. We were thinking about why we like different books or why we like different aspects of literature, and realized that I read almost entirely for words –
Natalie Coppa: And I read entirely for the story.
EH: I think that’s how our brains work in general, too. I’m a writer so words and language are just what I think about. I can’t read a book without highlighting. I highlight lines that I like and that’s what I go back to. Whether I enjoy a book or not is completely dependent on the language of it.
NC: So Emma can tell immediately if she’s going to like a book or not, but I can be 80 pages in and then be like, wait, I hate this! I don’t like the story or where it’s going and I don’t see a future with it after I'm already in the book, but she’ll know off the bat if she wont like the writing or how the writer tells the story.
EH: Because of that I can I pull out lines that I like and that’s what I usually remember about books. When I go back to them it’s for specific lines or specific passages and not for the whole culmination.
GAL: How often do you read?
EH: Depends on what’s going on in life. Like when I didn’t have a job I was reading a book a day.
NC: I can read a book in under 24 hours if I really like it.
EH: She could read a book in a day and I could probably read a book in two days when we have nothing else to do.
NC: Last summer – when we were, um –
EH: When we were gainfully unemployed…
NC: Half-employed. We would sit here on the couch and read for hours. Just a whole day spent reading! I miss that. It was marvelous.
EH: Now it's about four hours a week, maybe.
GAL: You both walk to work now, right? Does that impact the amount you read?
EH: Yep. I grew up in Inwood, so I would have at least a 45 minute commute to most places I was going. Those subway trips would be almost exclusively where I read. It was nice because it was one of those private times prior to cell service, you couldn’t be on your phone or doing anything else, so I’d either be falling asleep or reading. And that was so nice because you weren’t making time to do it. It was all I could do. Now though I love to do it, it’s hard to sit down and not look at the phone or respond to texts.
NC: Which makes reading hard in general. Because you have to put your phone away. There's so much anxiety involved.
GAL: Especially if you're doing the reading on a device.
EH: Yeah. Exactly. I also feel like now I try to make time every morning to go read, but even then, I’ll be sitting there half watching the clock, waiting to go to work. Saying to myself, I should go be checking my email. I should get going. I need to hurry up. It gets tense.
GAL: Do you listen to audiobooks?
EH: No. I think probably in the same way I’m particular about language I’m particular about voice. My family used to listen to them when we’d drive to see extended family in Virginia, so we’d listen to David Sedaris and Harry Potter on tape. Me and my brother would love it but my dad would be wanting to run the car off the road for how insufferable he found it.
NC: No, not really. I don't like it.
GAL: Do you have a current or forever favorite book?
EH: The current book I’m reading which I love is called Word by Word. It's about a woman who writes dictionaries for Merriam Webster which is basically my dream. It includes everything I love about the crafting of words. People think of the dictionary as a prescriptive, factual thing, but there’s a human being behind it trying to figure out what “the" means and how to explain it clearly.
NC: The dictionary is also the most requested book by prisoners. I used to send books to prisoners through an organization called Books Behind Bars.
EH: The book is so good. There’s so much in there about the English language and words, but then also people and how people use words and just how communication has evolved. There are two schools of thought about dictionaries: some people get really mad when things like “selfie” are added to the dictionary, but the people who actually write the dictionary understand that their job is simply to transcribe the natural course of human history with language. It’s fascinating.
NC: I would say probably The Art of Fielding, Tweak, A Beautiful Boy, The Year of Magical Thinking, much of Nora Ephron, and Dear Mr. You. I could read Helter Skelter one million times. It’s long and fascinating and takes forever to read which is nice.
EH: My forever favorites are The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, The White Album by Joan Didion, most of Nora Ephron is a forever favorite. Also Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, Dear Mr. You by Mary-Louise Parker, John Jerimiah Sullivan’s Pulphead essays, and Just Kids by Patti Smith.
GAL: What is it about story that carries you through a whole book?
NC: It’s kind of dark. I read a lot of books that are dark or dysfunctional or sad. Like books about cults, for example. I’ve also read a lot about the Holocaust, and I read a lot of books on depression and psychoanalysis. It all comes back to gaining perspective and understanding what's going on in other people's lives. Books like that allow me to see parts of life I'm not necessarily involved in.
EH: When I was younger, before I understood how much I loved language, strong characters were what drew me to books. I loved books about girls who were things that I wish I could've been be but never would be. Defiant girls. I was always a good kid and would never run away from home. I wasn’t ever breaking the rules at school. None of those things. So all of the characters I loved inside the books I liked best when I was younger had spunky heroines or went on wild adventures and did all of these brave things.
GAL: Do you remember a favorite one? What book turned you into a life long reader?
EH: The book I really fell in love with was Looking for Alaska which I read in middle school for the first time. The main character is very tragic, but she’s this incredible force and everyone loves her. She’s planning adventures, leading a charge. The language in that book is also amazing, and that was the first book where I was like, "Oh! This person is explaining what’s in my head!" Or simply explaining my existence better than I had the words to do at that time in my life. That’s the thing that gets me. When I was younger, I loved reading Polly Horvath's books too. The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, especially as a NYC kid, was a big deal. I was like, I’d never do this, but I so admire the characters for doing so. But Looking for Alaska is number one.
NC: That’s actually the book I give to my tutoring students when I want them to start getting into reading.
EH: John Green explains existence in an incredibly singular way. Since discovering him, I’ve found so many other writers who also do that. And use words beautifully.
NC: Emma finds the words a lot for me, too.
EH: What can I say, I love words! That book was the first one where I was like, it’s me, this is what’s in my head. When you’re 12, that is such an important thing.
GAL: That’s how you start figuring yourself out.
EH: I was a voracious reader my whole childhood but I didn’t understand why, or it was for different reasons than it is now, like I said, it was for the adventures and the characters. But that was the book that made me realize that I love books and love writing.
NC: I have a very distinct memory of the first book that I read again and again and again. It's called The Devil’s Arithmetic. It’s a Holocaust story and when I was first thinking about this question, that was the first book that came to mind. It's particularly interesting to realize that now, because that genre has followed me into my adult reading preferences. So I’d say probably that book, unknowingly so, helped turn me into a life long reader.
GAL: Do you read nonfiction? Do you prefer fiction to non-fiction?
NC: I do read quite a bit of non-fiction.
EH: I think I do prefer fiction but I lean to non-fiction from time to time. I either prefer novels or essays. Most of my non-fiction reading is in essay form. Essays can be really amazing because it is much less about carrying over storyline like a novel must. I also read poetry a lot. I was a poetry minor at school. I also love spoken word.
NC: Me too. We go see spoken word sometimes.
EH: We also have an iTunes playlist of great spoken word pieces. It’s hard to see live because it’s not the widest of fields. There aren’t many opportunities to go see Buddy Wakefield. I love watching it on YouTube though. It’s wonderful.
GAL: Natalie, do you have a favorite addiction memoir?
NC: Yes, A Beautiful Boy. It’s one of my favorite books. I think it’s a very true and honest account. It’s a father’s account of his son’s addiction. The son also wrote a book, so it’s really interesting to see it from both their perspectives.
GAL: Is there a book that profoundly changed you or your life?
EH: I don’t know that this was life changing, but I like the the advice through humor memoir genre that has emerged in the past couple of years. Like books by Tina Fey, Shonda Rimes, or Alyssa Mastromonico. When they're done well and done by people who are funny and have interesting advice to give, they're super pieces of non-fiction. I learn a lot from those kinds of books because there are things about myself that I feel like I need to learn or feel – especially things regarding professional life or the pains of growing up and figuring out how to be a person. I devour that type of advice even if I can’t put it into practice. So I like that that genre has come about.
NC: They’re better versions of How To Make Friends and Influence People.
EH: Yeah, sort of self-help, but so much more than that. Also, they’re by people you already know and admire. Little tidbits from them can stick, though perhaps I wouldn’t classify it as hugely life changing.
NC: I think mine would be Codependent No More. It gave me a tangible description for something that I knew or experienced sort of viscerally, but didn't know how to think about or explain."
GAL: How do you choose the books you read?
EH: I’m almost exclusively in person. Sometimes I’ll realize I need a new book so I’ll read through people’s summer book recommendations and Amazon bestsellers, but I never end up buying them. I have to go to McNally Jackson and walk around, read the back of some books, then read the first pages to see if I like it. It ends up being a very expensive hobby.
NC: We could spend our life at McNally Jackson. We are best friends. We also live together. There was one random very busy Saturday morning where I had to tutor and then I was going to the gym and meeting friends for lunch, and Emma was going to work out and then had to go meet her dad, and I was like, oh perfect, I have time to kill so I can go read at McNally Jackson in between events. 5 minutes later, Emma walks in. We literally ran into each other. Of all the places in New York, of course we were both there in our short periods of free time.
GAL: Do you feel like your life is a literary construct much in the way a novelist tells a story?
NC: Some parts.
EH: Well there is a Nora Ephron quote that says “everything is copy” and we say that to each other sometimes jokingly. Whenever really absurd things happen or when we have days or nights when we’re just like, OH MY GOD, everything is absurd. We had the four month stretch when everything was absurd.
NC: Yeah. Everything is copy. Everything also leads back to Nora Ephron.
EH: No, I don’t know that I think of my life that way, but there are times when, especially when I’ve been heads down in a specific book, I start thinking in the tone or the language of that author. I’ll start of catch myself narrating myself or my view in the context of whatever I’m reading.
NC: Even though things can be absurd, the "everything is copy" moments, I also think that some of our routine and some of my routine I can imagine as part of a novel.
GAL: Is it important for you to hold the books you read?
EH: It’s so important. Namely because the highlighting thing is vital. You can highlight on the Kindle and the iPad but it’s not comparable. I had a brief stint when I went abroad – I brought a Kindle and I tried, and then I took an old iPad and tried on there for a little – but neither lasted. It’s hard for me because my love of books and reading is probably ….
NC: …slowly taking over our home
EH: Well partially that, but holding books is also rivaled by my love of practicality and physical comfort. I went home for Thanksgiving, you know, uptown to Inwood, I was like okay, I’m going to stay there for 3 days, and so I brought four books. I don’t know what I thought I was going to be able to accomplish, but I dragged that heavy bag through the city because I couldn’t bear not having the option of reading all of them. I’ll never lend books. I won’t even lend them to my mother because she won’t give them back. It gives me so much anxiety when I lend a book and the person wont give it back.
NC: She ended things with a boy and her main concern was trying to get back a book she lent to him. She had to text him and have him meet her somewhere for the book. She was so anxious.
EH: I was like “I NEED IT FOR A THING. I NEED TO WRITE A COLLEGE ESSAY WITH IT SO CAN I HAVE IT?” I was a mess thinking that I wouldn't get that book back.
GAL: High stakes book lending.
EH: Yeah, lesson learned. I never lend books.
NC: I lend books to your mom. She usually gives them back.
EH: If I love something, I also need everyone to experience it too. I’m a total evangelizer about anything that I care about. So it puts me in a weird position when the person responds to my excitement about a book with “Oh, can I borrow it?” (laughs).
GAL: If you were to write your memoir, what would you title it?
EH: I’m Going To Google It and Other Things No One Cares About.
NC: Failed Narcissist.
*NATALIE'S FAVORITE NORA EPHRON QUOTE:
"I should point out that I don't normally use the word "amortize" unless I'm trying to prove that something I can't really afford is not just a bargain but practically free. This usually involves dividing the cost of the item I can't afford by the number of years I am planning to use it, and if that doesn't work, by the number of days or hours or minutes, until I get to a number that is less than the cost of a cappuccino. "
*EMMA'S FAVORITE NORA EPHRON QUOTE:
"This is for those of you who understand, in short, that your purse is, in some horrible way, you. Or, as Louis XIV might have put it but didn't because he was much too smart to have a purse, Le sac, c'est moi."