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addabook - Figuring
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Maria Popova
read on December 31, 2020

I've known about Brain Pickings for a very long time, well over a decade. I've occasionally dipped in and out, but never been a frequent reader of the blog. I'm not certain why, possibly because it was so overwhelmingly well done that it's intimidating just to read. When I read a book, I may have a couple disjointed thoughts about it. But when Maria Popova reads a book, she writes incredible essays about them, often illustrated, and always linking heavily to other contextual items - contemporary or adjacent works - that she's read and reviewed before. Reading Brain Pickings makes me feel like a bad reader myself. That said, Brain Pickings is easily the single biggest influence I had on making this site. The platonic ideal of Addabook has always been to provide a platform to democratize Brain Pickings quality personal write-ups of books. Obviously Addabook falls very far short of that. Both technically in terms of design and appearance, but primarily, of course, because Brain Pickings relies on the incredible genius and wonderful, passionate writing of Popova.

When I saw Popova wrote a book last year, which it's unique cover, I knew I would read it eventually. I purposefully stayed away from learning anything about it, and since I'm not that frequent a reader of Brain Pickings itself, all of the content was entirely new to me. And wow, what an experience.

Here is how Maria Popova summarized her book, Figuring.

Figuring explores the complexities, varieties, and contradictions of love, and the human search for truth, meaning, and transcendence, through the interwoven lives of several historical figures across four centuries — beginning with the astronomer Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion, and ending with the marine biologist and author Rachel Carson, who catalyzed the environmental movement. Stretching between these figures is a cast of artists, writers, and scientists — mostly women, mostly queer — whose public contribution has risen out of their unclassifiable and often heartbreaking private relationships to change the way we understand, experience, and appreciate the universe. Among them are the astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science; the sculptor Harriet Hosmer, who did the same in art; the journalist and literary critic Margaret Fuller, who sparked the feminist movement; and the poet Emily Dickinson.


Emanating from these lives are larger questions about the measure of a good life and what it means to leave a lasting mark of betterment on an imperfect world: Are achievement and acclaim enough for happiness? Is genius? Is love? Weaving through the narrative is a set of peripheral figures — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Darwin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, Caroline Herschel, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman — and a tapestry of themes spanning music, feminism, the history of science, the rise and decline of religion, and how the intersection of astronomy, poetry, and Transcendentalist philosophy fomented the environmental movement.

As a matter of summarizing the book, she's done it far better than I could ever. Though on her own personal bio she boils it down to "a very long, very yellow book" which I adore as well.

I'll just call out two additional comments:

First, I loved how well Popova interconnected the histories of these individuals throughout the book. Too often history is told from a single perspective, or focused on a single character, and the greater context of each person and their actions in the rest of the world, and onto other people, is lost. Popova just does a masterful job illustrating the surrounding context in each person's life, and connections to the other focal characters, without being awkwardly explicit about it. The book bounces around telling the stories of maybe a dozen different people through history, but it never feels disjointed or anthological — it reads as a single threaded story all the way through. It's an incredible literary achievement that works so well it is almost unnoticed.

Second, I'm just embarrassed to have not known of almost literally any of these incredible people before. Pretty much just Emily Dickinson had previously been on my radar. These women are incredible. Their achievements are unbelievable. Their accomplishments to science, art, and culture are inarguable. How are they not all household names? (Unsurprisingly, almost 100% of the contemporary men that these women worked with would be recognizable to any middle schooler).

This book was absolutely incredible. Certainly the best book I've read in a long time, but additionally just an incredible achievement of intellectualism and art. A wonderful pleasure to read, easily my book of year.

Author Bio:

In her own words: Hello, kith. My name is Maria Popova. I am a reader and writer, and I write about what I read here on Brain Pickings — my one-woman labor of love exploring what it means to live a decent, substantive, rewarding life. Founded in 2006 as a weekly email to seven friends, eventually brought online and now included in the Library of Congress permanent web archive, it is a record of my own becoming as a person — intellectually, creatively, spiritually, poetically — drawn from my extended marginalia on the search for meaning across literature, science, art, philosophy, and the various other tentacles of human thought and feeling. I am also the author of a very long, very yellow book titled Figuring and the editor of an eight-year labor titled A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. I have at times thought in words for The New York Times, Wired, and The Atlantic, among others.