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Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Brain Behind Brain Pickings

She's Got Some Big Ideas

Elizabeth Lippman for The New York Times

Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings, an online grab bag of eclectic information.

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.

Maria Popova grew up around books.

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.

Bruce Feiler's latest book,“The Secrets of Happy Families,” will be published in February. “This Life” appears monthly.

A version of this article appeared in print on December 2, 2012, on page ST1 of the New York edition with the headline: She's Got Some Big Ideas.