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 WordPress.com blog after doing some basic research into the various platforms out there. Then I started writing. And then I became addicted.

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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.

Rein Jansma, Stairs

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.

Biblioklept's minimalist look, using Under the Influence.

Biblioklept‘s minimalist look, using Under the Influence.

How did you settle on your site’s current design, using Under the Influence as your theme?

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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14 Comments

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  1. imsupersaiyan

    I really enjoyed reading about how the blog changed with time. I think it was a great response. The daily posts of people reading is such a fantastic idea. I can’t wait to get to know more about biblioklept, it sounds like such a fun blog!

  2. tomgeorgearts

    Unreturned books on my shelf:
    1. Jack Kerouac: On the Road (maybe it’s fitting for it to stay away from home), 2. Thomas Mann: Death In Venice, 3. Hugh Cornwell: The Stranglers, song by song, 4. Jean-Francois Lyotard: The Postmodern Condition (an unreturned library book of a friend who left the country)
    Books yet to be returned to me? I don’t remember and so I don’t care. That’s how it should be – let the written word wander free :)

  3. Judith Land

    “Good books are like dinosaur tracks in the bedrock—they leave impressions that last forever.” —Martin Land, Adoption Detective

  4. Jean

    Love this blog name!

  5. emmabarrett1508

    Unreturned books on my bookshelf
    Neil Gaiman: Neverwhere – Oops wondered why I hadn’t seen that friend in a while.
    Sylvia Plath: Ariel – Sorry to the place I used to work in.
    A Catcher in the Rye: A way of remembering my old school.
    As a self confessed literary geek I do get very angry when my books are not returned. Hypocritical I know!
    I loved this post. Looking forward to exploring Biblioklept further. I have a food blog called surreyKitchen.wordpress.com and the most literary recipe Ive done so far was the one I posted as an obituary for Seamus Heaney. Check it out. It’s fun and one I think he would have approved of.

  6. d3b01946

    I like this blog but am personally biblioklept averse, I know where all my books are and also all my DVDs. I know precisely who has not returned a book I have lent out, I stay friends with these people and if I do see my book on their shelves, I take it back! That said, this is a very interesting blog for other reasons

  7. The Sisters Eternal

    Very interesting interview. I like his advice on learning from your readers instead of placing yourself as an authority figure. I think that is great advice because it helps the blogger to grow.

  8. Dave75

    Thank You for a very informative article Ben. i am a avid reader and have just started blogging.

  9. Anna

    I love these interviews with individuals from the WP community, they’re so interesting! I also adore the name of the blog :D

  10. Cynthia Guenther Richardson

    That was refreshing and entertaining–nicely improved my afternoon. I need a library check-out system, I think. Books that once lived snugly on my shelves are now living lives all over the place and do not stay in touch…

  11. cindamackinnon

    RE Images. I have become paranoid about using images and photographs since I read that all of them are automatically copy-righted by the act of creation. Be interested in everyone’s thought on this. Thanks/

    • Ben Huberman

      Hi, cindamackinnon —
      You raise an important issue. One resource that Ed mentions in this profile, Wikipaintings.org, contains mountains of public domain images. Other resources, like Flickr, allow users to search specifically for images that can be used under a Creative Commons license. In other words, it’s quite possible to find — and blog about — images without violating anyone’s copyright. It’s important to stress, though, that whatever the status of the image is, one should always give proper attribution.

  12. M. R.

    Now, Edwin: that horrible confession about not returning books you’ve been lent? – tends to make me dark on you!
    Terrific idea, terrific name, and an over-all terrific site. You should maybe keep an eye on ‘Colossal’ for quite frequent images you’d love to use (that is, of course, if you are allowed).

  13. deniselhuckaby

    I found this blog to be interesting. It gave me some food for thought about how I am posting on my own blog.

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