Making America Read Again: A Conversation with Hillary Copsey

Making America Read Again: A Conversation with Hillary Copsey

We met with Hillary Copsey, a Norwood resident and journalist who recently founded the newsletter Make America Read Again, at Listermann Brewing Company. We grabbed a few pale ales and a ginger beer and chatted about developing a culture of reading, raising bookworms, and more.

Interview by Kiersten Wones. Photography by Chelsie Walter.

Tell us about yourself and how Make America Read Again got started.

I’m a freelance writer and editor and I work for a variety of publications. I’ve always been a reader and I’ve got a little bit of time on my hands now that I don’t have a full-time job, and that’s where Make America Read Again started.

It just really struck me as the election season [went on] and everyone was screaming at each other. I was a health reporter for a long several years, so I’ve seen all these studies that come out and show that reading encourages empathy and compassion and understanding and critical thinking, and it felt to me like those are the things that we need right now.

We need to be able to talk to each other. And even when we don’t agree with each other, we need to be able to have a conversation that’s based in civility instead of screaming at each other.

And so Make America Read Again seemed to me like a really important thing to be talking about right now.

I had people ask if this is about pushing the liberal agenda or are we mocking President Trump, and it’s really not that or anything other than I think that if we read more, we are more likely to understand each other.

But I might not have done anything with it. I’ve been in social media for a long time … and occasionally I would post a picture of what I read or offer book suggestions, and it would become this giant thread on Facebook, or somebody on Instagram would say “I screenshotted this.” So I would’ve done just that, but one of my internet friends, a woman named Jennie Canzoneri in Texas is a marketer by trade and also one of the most enthusiastic people I’ve ever met.

It was so serendipitous. I went back to freelancing right around Thanksgiving, so I was thinking “What am I going to do? Should I do something like Make America Read Again? I’ve got time. Maybe I should do something.” And she emailed and was like “What are you doing with this? I think you should do a newsletter.” And I said “Funny you should say that. I’ve been thinking about that.” And so the two of us decided to do it.

How is it going so far?

We’re working up to 200 subscribers. We had more than 100 when we launched the first one. We were hoping for 25 to 50. The open rate is about 70 percent, and the click rate is also very high, so people are actually reading it.

And we’ve only done one push; it was just the week of that I did a push on my social media and Jennie did one post and that was it. I think it’s really hitting a chord with people. We’ve been seeing all these national news stories about 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale and yes, those are great books, and I’m not saying you shouldn’t read those, but I also think there are so many great American stories that we could be reading right now to get a grip on what else is out there. What other perspective could there be?

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There are a lot of different American experiences and there are a lot of books out there that would help. Those are the kinds of books that I’m pushing. And I just think there’s a book for everyone. It’s comforting, right? It’s something peaceful and cheap to do. That’s why I really like this “like this, read that” thing. That’s one of my favorite games to play with anyone because I think that too many people say “I don’t like to read,” and that’s not true. You just haven’t found the right thing.

Do you hope to expand your reach to more than just book lovers?

There’s always going to be a slant towards readers. But my hope is that if you get enough readers talking about reading, instead of being insular amongst themselves, you’ll create this culture of reading. I have a 7-year-old and a 9-year-old, both boys, and children will do whatever they want to do. But mine are readers and I get asked a lot “How do you raise a reader?” And I think a lot of what goes into it is it’s just what we do. There are always books available in our house, full bookshelves, full library baskets. One of the things in my crazy postpartum [stage], one of my “pleas” to my husband was “You have to read in front of them! They can’t think that only women read. Men read, too,” because he only read at bedtime. But he makes it a point. Ender’s Game is my 9-year-old’s favorite book, and he read that because my husband said, when he was seven, “I don’t know. This book might be too old for you. Maybe when you’re eight.” It’s just the culture, and we all work the same way. If we talk enough about things … I think you’ll end up with more readers in the end.

That’s what I want to do with the newsletters is send out more of that. The joke is that I’m a “reading evangelist,” or I have a friend who calls me a “book pusher.”

I’m trying to create more book pushers and more reading evangelists. In the next newsletter I’m talking about my favorite question: “What are you reading?” It’s more interesting than the weather, and if your answer is “I’m not reading anything,” then let’s talk about what you should be reading. Let’s play “like this, read that.”

Cincinnati is such a literary city. It’s one of my favorite parts about the city. I’ve seen three authors in the last month, and every one I’ve been lucky enough to get a question in. My question is always “What are you reading?” The authors – and really anyone who’s a reader – their reaction is always so charming. They’re always like “Gasp – let me tell you!” They’re just so excited to get that question, and then it becomes a conversation. It’s so much more interesting than “What’s going on?” “I’m busy.” “I’m busy, too.”

Were you raised the same way with a “culture of reading”?

Family legend is that I was a horrible, colicky child who screamed for three months straight – never stopped. And out of desperation, they read literally anything they could get their hands on to me to try to drown out my screaming – the phone book, whatever novels happened to be lying around, anything.

I honestly don’t remember learning how to read. One of my very earliest, happiest memories was Dr. Suess’s ABC, reading it quietly in my closet by myself. And there’s this picture of me at Lake Erie when I’m eight years old with Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Everyone else is fishing and I had a cushion on a rock with this book. My mom took the picture and put it in our photo album with the words “typical Hillary.”

My mom would take us to the library and there was this very mean librarian. She would always look down her nose with her glasses. And I came up with a stack of books once – and my mom always let me read whatever it was that I wanted to read so adult books, whatever – when I was a pre-teen and the librarian said “That’s too many books.” And I’m like, “But there’s not a limit, right?” So she started checking them out and she gets to the adult book and she goes “You are not old enough to check this out.” And my mom came up and said “She is my daughter and she will check out whatever she wants to check out. You will check the book out.” And I remember feeling partially embarrassed because I was a pre-teen, but also like, “Yeah. Go Mom. You get me. You understand.”

Do you have a single favorite book?

[Pulling a stack of books including Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales and Jane Eyre out of her bag] These are me. I might save these if my house were burning. Grimm’s Fairy Tales – it has my sister’s scribbles in it and I’ve read it I don’t know how many times.

This [pointing to Jane Eyre] a teacher gave to me. My parents didn’t really buy me books. We went to the library all the time but I didn’t own very many books when I was a kid. I read so fast that it wasn’t a good investment to buy me a book. So this was really important to me. This was a book that I had, and I read it a lot. Jane Eyre as a character really spoke to me, especially as a kid and even now as an adult. She’s small and insignificant. She doesn’t have many advantages, but she’s really determined to live on her terms.

Tell us about an influential woman in your life.

I have two answers for you. My “real” answer is my mom. She raised my sister and I. My dad was a truck driver, so a lot of times he was gone and it was just the three of us. Now that I’m a parent I can imagine how tired she must have been, and she always encouraged me. She continues to encourage me and my kids. She’s one of the most important people in my life.

The second answer is that there are so many influential women in this city. One of the things that I love most about Cincinnati is it is a city where women get shit done. It is a city where there women CEOs, women leaders, and they’re always on top of it. You look at the Taft Museum, or Irma Lazarus. She was a woman who wanted people to enjoy the arts, get out there and enjoy this city. And I love that about this city. Gosh, I’m part of that history. I think that is one of the things that makes this place special.

The second edition of Make America Read Again will go out later this week. Make sure to subscribe here.

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