Sunday, 2 December 2012
Meet Maria Popova, mastermind of an online literary empire
She is the mastermind of the one of the faster growing literary empires on the Internet, yet she is virtually unknown. She is the champion of old-fashioned ideas, yet she is only 28 years old. She is a fierce defender of books, yet she insists she will never write one herself.
At precisely 9:30 on a chilly Saturday morning, Maria Popova slips out of her apartment in Brooklyn, scurries down a few stairs and enters a small basement gym. A former recreational bodybuilder from Bulgaria, Ms. Popova is the unlikely founder of the exploding online emporium of ideas known as Brain Pickings.
Her exhaustively assembled grab bag of scientific curiosities, forgotten photographs, snippets of old love letters and mash notes to creativity imagine the high-mindedness of a TED talk mixed with the pop sensibility of P. T. Barnum spans a blog (500,000 visitors a month), a newsletter (150,000 subscribers) and a Twitter feed (263,000 followers). Her output, which she calls a "human-powered discovery engine for interestingness," has attracted an eclectic group of devotees including the novelist William Gibson, the singer Josh Groban, the comedian Drew Carey, the neuroscientist David Eagleman, the actress Mia Farrow and the Twitter founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams.
"She's a celebrator," said Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton professor and former State Department official. "You feel the tremendous amount of pleasure she takes in finding these things and sharing them. It's like walking into the Museum of Modern Art and having somebody give you a customized, guided tour."
Unlike most blogger celebrities, however, Ms. Popova revels in remaining anonymous, which means her followers know almost nothing about her. In an age when many tweet what they put in their morning coffee, she rarely uses the word "I." Her personal history is almost completely absent. Her photograph is not on the site. "I don't feel the necessity to be in the public eye that way," she said after reluctantly agreeing to sit for an interview. "There's a certain safety in making people feel like you're an organization and not a person. "
A fierce creature of habit, she begins every day by working out. On this morning, she alternates 20 chin-ups with 50 push-ups, then performs a series of planks and stretches. Once on the elliptical, she frantically highlights an obscure 1976 book, "The Creativity Question" (Amazon sales ranking one million-plus), and checks her RSS feed on her iPad.
Exactly 70 minutes later, she returns to her modest one-bedroom apartment to write a brief essay about Freud and daydreaming, file her thrice-daily blog entries and schedule her regimen of 50 Twitter messages a day. She does this while balancing on a wobble board.
"I try to sit still when I work, but my mind goes spiraling elsewhere," she said in a mild Slavic accent reminiscent of Bond girls in the 1970s. "When my body is moving, it's almost like it takes the wind out of this mental spinning, and I'm able to focus." Recently, she came upon a 1942 book on inspiration chronicling others with the same habit. "Mark Twain paced while he dictated," she said. "Beethoven walked along the river. Maybe there's a psycho-biological element."
Ms. Popova traces her discipline to her upbringing behind the Iron Curtain. Her parents met as teenage exchange students in Russia and had her almost immediately. Her father was an engineering student who later became an Apple salesman; her mother was studying library science. "We're not very much in touch," she said of her parents today, "but recently we were on Skype, and this whole library science thing came up. I realized a lot of what I do is organizational, almost like a Dewey Decimal System for the Web. My mother got so emotional. It was very funny, and kind of moving."
Her paternal grandmother was a rabid biblio and had a collection of encyclopedias, Ms. Popova said, and she credits the act of randomly opening volumes and happening upon entries for her passion to discover old knowledge. "The Web has such a presentism bias," she said, with Facebook updates, tweets and blog entries always appearing with the latest first. By contrast, flipping through the encyclopedia was "an interesting model of learning about the world serendipitously and also guidedely."
After graduating from an American high school in Bulgaria, she enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, where she quickly grew bored with what she calls the "industrial model" of education, involving large-scale lectures. While still a student, she was working part time at an advertising firm in 2005, when a colleague sent around an e-mail with clippings of rivals' work to inspire the team.
Ms. Popova thought it was the wrong way to spur imagination, so she told her boss she would begin sending around her own inspirational e-mail regularly. It would contain everything from a new piece of research into biomimicry to a haiku by a Japanese poet. Without much thought, she called it Brain Pickings. "It was the opposite of how school made me feel," she said. "It was a kind of Rube Goldberg-like machine of curiosity and discovery."
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Soon, her friends began forwarding the e-mails, so she set up a rudimentary Web site to collect them. She continued updating it while working in advertising, writing magazine articles, even returning to Bulgaria for a year to wait out a visa application.
Today, Brain Pickings provides the bulk of her income. She eschews ads on the site, but openly solicits donations and earns a percentage from books purchased on her recommendation through Amazon. (Ms. Slaughter said she gives $25 a month - "a lot like giving to your public radio station.") The earnings are "enough for me to live my life comfortably," Ms. Popova said, "and be able to do what I do."
So what exactly is it that she does? Ms. Popova says she views her job as "helping people become interested in things they didn't know they were interested in, until they are." One entry might discuss how to find your true passion, with links to a talk by Alain de Botton, a book by the cartoonist Hugh MacLeod and a commencement address by Steve Jobs; another, how she asked an artist friend to illustrate thoughts on love from Susan Sontag's diaries. Recently she recounted an aging Helen Keller's visit to Martha Graham's studio.
Paola Antonelli, a senior curator at the Museum of Modern Art and a friend of Ms. Popova's, said a good curator was someone whose own taste had somehow become the taste of millions. "What Maria has is the DNA of millions of people," Ms. Antonelli said. "She somehow tunes in to what would make other people dream, or inspire them in a way that is quite unique."
One feature that helps make Ms. Popova's work so popular is the visual style of her entries, with catchy graphics, abundant photographs and whimsical illustrations. In some ways, this reflects her personal style: she favors simple black clothes, highlighted by playful yellow accessories, including a yellow Lego ring and yellow clogs. Her apartment is filled with yellow boxing gloves, a yellow fire extinguisher and a giant yellow Lego piece.
But her commercial instincts are rooted in a deeper place. Coming of age in post-communist Eastern Europe, Ms. Popova developed an interested in consumerism, "the notion of people making sense of themselves through stuff, through what they own and what they buy." Brain Pickings takes ideas that are abstract, even arcane, and repackages them in a perky, Warhol way, which makes them accessible to the masses. One word that comes to mind is "bourgeois."
"What it reminds me of," said Edward Tufte, the Yale professor emeritus of computer science, statistics and political science, "is there was a great series of interviews with authors in 'The Paris Review.' I read those over and over for inspiration but also to try to understand the meaning of a creative life."
She has faced criticism, of course. She has been dismissed as elitist and condescending. An initiative she helped start last spring, the Curator's Code, which called for more respect and attribution in the Twittersphere, was harshly criticized. Ms. Popova responded in a blog post that began, "In times of turmoil, I often turn to one of my existential pillars of comfort: Albert Einstein's 'Ideas and Opinion.' " She ended with this thought: "There is a way to critique intelligently and respectfully, without eroding the validity of your disagreement. It boils down to manners."
As for her future, Ms. Popova said she had little interest in expanding her brand. "I get asked all the time, 'How's it going to scale?' 'What's next?' " she said. "What I do is what I do, and I don't think I'm ever going to change that." The woman who rails against her contemporaries for turning their backs on old books said she had no interest in writing one. "That's such an antiquated model of thinking," she said. "Why would I want to write something that's going to have the shelf life of a banana?"
Instead, she is committed to the Internet. "So much of what the Web is presenting lowers people down," she said. "What Paris Hilton ate for breakfast"; by contrast, the vast majority of its gems remain untapped.
Brain Pickings is her attempt to create a 21st-century library, as she put it. "I want to build a new framework for what information matters," she said. In effect, she wants to recreate the portals she first viewed the world through as a child - the library science of her mother and the encyclopedia of her grandmother.
And if she's able to do that? "I'll feel stimulated," she said, "like I'm learning."
© 2012, The New York Times News Service