Caught in the Act (of Reading): Edwin Turner, Master Book Thief

Book lovers, lock your libraries: a voracious reader is among us. We recently chatted with Edwin Turner, the mastermind behind Biblioklept, a popular literary blog dedicated to books, art, and the ways in which the two shape our world. Join us for a conversation with Ed about blogging, literature, and finding a sense of community through the solitary act of writing.

Why did you start Biblioklept?

In September of 2006 two friends suggested I start a blog. I thought the idea of blogging was kind of silly, but I started Biblioklept as a blog after doing some basic research into the various platforms out there. Then I started writing. And then I became addicted.


Edwin Turner of Biblioklept

How did you come up with the intriguing name?

I think it was just there, waiting for me. Like a lot of people who read, I keep lists of words — I mean real, physical lists — and “biblioklept” had always been one of those words. “Biblioklept” means “book thief,” and I have a tendency to neglect to return books that people loan me — but people to whom I lend books do the same in kind. So the word was kind of there, like a mission statement.

Has the focus of your blog changed over time?

The blog has changed as I’ve changed — as my interests and dispositions have changed, but also as my personal and professional life has changed.

In the beginning I was mostly interested in documenting book theft — both personal and general — and writing about the books I was reading. I was teaching at an inner city high school at the time, and I was also in graduate school, so a lot of that seeped into the blog.

In the earlier years, I blogged more about music and politics and education and critical theory, and I think that the site had a really sarcastic — and often bitter — tone to it. I now shrug about things that might have sent me into a rage in my twenties.

The blog features a lot more art than it used to. And the types of authors I focus on has changed in some sense. My audience has taught me so much about reading and about literature and about so many great and neglected books I’d missed in my teens and twenties.

How do you go about selecting the excerpts, images, and quotes you feature on your blog?

How I blog is fairly intuitive — my posts come from what I’m reading, what I’m seeing, what I’m feeling at the moment. Still, there’s a framework or a schedule I try to follow to keep the blog unified and consistent (I hope).

I try to blog some kind of original content at least once a week — a review, or a riff, or a rant. I don’t always hit the goal; other times I’m more prolific.

I also have some basic daily goals. I post an image — usually a painting — of someone reading every day, usually around midnight. It turns out that there are thousands and thousands of paintings of books and readers.

Where do you actually find this content?

WikiPaintings is an important site for me; so is Art Tattler International. If I like a painting or an image, I share it. There’s not much more to it than that.

The citations I share come from what I’m reading, or have read, or plan to read. I mark passages all the time, so it’s kind of a way for me to plan a review. I try to share stuff that can stand alone; part of my goal is to get out of the way and let the passages speak for themselves.

What types of posts do you return to regularly?

There are some regular features on the blog, like lists with no name; some lists are more cryptic than others. I also photograph almost every book that I get and then write something about it or at least run the publisher’s blurb; that’s a series I call “Books Acquired.”

I did a few literary dictionaries the other month, just for fun. A few years ago I ran pictures of my bookshelves (that was a hellish experience — I will never do anything like it again), and before that I ran posts of death masks each Sunday. I have a thing I’m doing now called Plagiarism, a series of posts loosely organized around art theft.

How do you see the relation between curated materials and your own original content (reviews, riffs, interviews, etc.)?

I don’t think I’d ever call myself a curator — I’m an amateur, and I hold deep respect for what traditional curators do, for their training, and for their discipline and experience. David Foster Wallace suggests that “The curator’s job [is] to recall, choose, arrange: to impose order and so communicate meaning.”

I choose and arrange, but I’m not sure how much order I impose, beyond tagging and titling, and I’m certainly not interested in making meaning for the reader, at least not with the material that I share but do not originate — I’d prefer the audience to do that work.

So what does curation mean to you and your work on Biblioklept?

I think that the best curation happens through a creative impulse, a synthesis of some kind. We can find it everywhere — in John Keats’s letters, or T.S. Eliot’s poetry, or Tarantino’s films.

I suppose what I’d like to believe is that Biblioklept, at least to some of its regular audience, functions as a sustained creative act that requires some degree of active effort — feeling, thinking effort — on the part of the viewer/reader/auditor.

At the same time, I think Biblioklept is quite a bit different from sites like WikiPaintings and Project Gutenberg. I love and value those sites and I recognize that they’re beholden to an archivist’s standard that I simply neglect on my blog. I think Biblioklept is closer to a mixtape, a notebook, or a pastiche than a properly curated archival project.

I’m a big fan of simplicity — I like simple, elegant black-on-white blogs that use a lot of the screen. I think sidebars and header menus are great for sites that have a lot of different content, but I want my own site to be as simple as possible — so the only sidebar on my site is a search box. Everything else is a footer, below the content.

The features that are behind the hood are the ones I find most useful, like the proofreading tools. I like the various media features, like inserting media from links — the new feature where you can embed tweets is really cool, although I’ve only had the chance to use it once so far.

I also like the Flickr Widget and the Twitter Timeline Widget.

Do you have any exciting plans for Biblioklept‘s future?

A couple of younger writers have been posting some stuff on the site, which is exciting for me. These are people whose work I read elsewhere and then approached to see if they’d want to write something for Biblioklept. I also have a few author interviews underway, which I’m hoping to put up soon.

As far as the future of the site, I don’t really think about it in any long-term sense. Every time I’ve gotten tired of doing something on the blog I simply quit doing whatever that “something” was. So I imagine it will mutate as I mutate.

Over the years of running Biblioklept you’ve gathered a community of thousands of engaged followers. Can you share any thoughts on how to break through the solitude of blogging and keep going?

Do your best to blog every day. Blog original content as much as possible. If you reblog stuff, add to it, comment on it, explain to your readers why you want to share it.

Write to a specific audience — don’t aim at everyone.

Schedule posts ahead of time. Do your best to reply to comments.

Proofreading is important, but the illusion of perfection is poisonous. Interact with other bloggers who share your interests, but avoid cliques.

Share your blog on other social platforms — Twitter, or Tumblr, or Facebook — but use those platforms in an engaged way.

Blogging is personal — your blog should be personal.

Don’t position yourself as an authority all the time, as I seem to be doing here, now — lots of your readers are going to know way, way more than you do and you can learn from them — so ignore all this advice and do your own thing.

Thanks for sharing this, Ed, and for taking the time to chat with us.

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