Figuringby Maria Popova Published 05 Feb 2019
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explores the complexities of love and the human search for truth and meaning through the interconnected 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, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and 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.
How does one begin to explain a book like Figuring? Honestly, I don’t know, however, I shall try. The book Figuring is much like Popova’s site, brainpickings.org: it is sort of a Russian doll, revealing layer after layer after layer, only if you wish to see it, or perhaps experience it. Figuring is a book that you should read with the mindset of allowing the book to take it where it wants to, without expecting something too traditional or run of the mill.
Figuring is a beautiful combination of science with art. The alignment sticks – how each of them is intertwined and how art inspires science and vice-versa. It is like her website, only more detailed – pieces that go on and go and that’s what I loved as a reader, knowing I didn’t have to scroll up or down and could be after reading one paragraph or two and going back to it after a cup of tea.
Maria Popova’s book brings the wonder of scientists and then combines it with hearts and emotions of people, mainly women scientists and that to me was most unique. Figures looks at love, and truth through the interconnected lives of historical figures across four centuries. She begins with the astronomer Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion, and it ends with Rachel Carson who was so important in the environmental movement.
And in all of this, Popova includes more artists, writers, and scientists (which makes it even more fun to read) – women, and queer and their contribution. What I love about Figuring is that it is like a rabbit hole that you would love getting into. Maria Popova interconnects, segregates, and makes you question matters of life, love, and the heart and what are we doing to leave an impression on the world.
Figuring asks big questions and it isn’t afraid of doing that. There is so much happening in the book that it takes some time to assimilate all of that, and only then can you get into its groove (or at least that’s what happened to me). Figuring would seem disconnected and disjointed in most places, till it all falls into place and that’s when you as a reader start seeing it for what it is. The book is a marriage of art, life, science, music, philosophy, feminism, decline of religion, free love, astronomy and poetry, and honestly no one better to do it than our very trusted Brain Picker.
I love Popova's blog and I've been following her for years. She is an excellent curator. But I don't think her skills work in book format. There were some really beautiful stories in here--especially at the end. If the book had just been Emily Dickinson And Rachel Carson, it would have been great, but there are too many people in here and not enough of a thread to tie them together.
I wonder how can one review a book as expansive and immersive as Figuring without somehow falling short in revealing its true splendour to its prospective readers. There’s only one thing that I can say about the book without a shadow of doubt — it is every bit as incredible and layered as Brain Pickings that is run by Maria Popova, who happens to be the author of this splendid labour of love and intense research.
The more I try, the more I fail to find the words that would do justice to this genre bending book which is a beautiful coming together of literature and science. Popova presents a blend of these two throbbing, pulsating life-streams that nurture humanity only to be, unfortunately, pitted against each other. In her characteristic style, Popova sidesteps this crude discourse and instead wreathes a landscape that shows how mistaken we are in our discriminating worldview that insists on categorising things as singular, individualistic entities when in reality we are the sum total of
everything that surrounds us, from seeds to stardust, plural and wholesome when divested of confining labels.
In bringing together women artists, scientists, writers who have been obscured by narratives that choose to only look at men as achievers of anything substantial, Popova consciously and with great mettle brings to us lives that were as real and meaningful as that of their male counterparts’. She does this not with bitterness or vengefulness but with a spirit of inquiry that wonders what we could we be if only we had been prudent enough to not negate voices that we couldn’t understand because of our own foibles of short-sightedness and judgement. After all, we are all mere specks in this vast and noble universe, living and breathing on this ‘pale blue dot’ called earth, fortified by love and the sense that our lives are interwoven with others’.
Read Figuring for a sublime reading experience and be prepared to emerge a different person, full of regard for the joys that life bestows on us for the short while that we inhabit this planet.
I don’t really like to read biographies. Even at that, this book was not strictly a biography, but at its core it was three not very original biographies of three different women, Margret Fuller, Emily Dickerson, and Rachel Carson. I just can’t help but think that real biographers have covered those three people in more original depth in other sources than this author did.
The author quoted Virginia Woolf to the effect that we should be more focused on the poetry than the poet. I tend to agree with that sentiment. The author in the Fuller section of the book had her character saying they wanted a person to know them not for what they thought but for their character, and the author quoted Emerson to the effect that it’s our character not our intellect that matters. I’m more interested in learning about what somebody thought than whom they had sex with, or who they didn’t love or what their character consisted of. Show me their equations, or their philosophy, but when it comes to their experiences or their character it tends to bore me.
It’s important to note that the author framed the story telling within a transcendentalist narrative. By way of me over simplifying, the transcendentalists would tend to believe that everything is interconnected, and truth is beauty and beauty is truth and that is all we need to know, and meaning is assigned by us to bridge the two. In addition, we grasp the infinite from our finite experiences and love is the glue that holds the universe together, and knowledge is less important than feelings (she quoted Carson saying that multiple times).
There was a phrase I liked within the Fuller section; it went like this ‘why is there something rather than nothing’. It wasn’t really referring to the cosmological big question, but, rather, how does a person become authentic to their selves, that is actualize their full potential through phronesis (an Aristotelian word which could be translated by ‘prudence’). And when one is born with a sexual identity not conforming to the stifling norms of the time period and is also a member of the non-privileged group such as a woman or non-white, how does one become something rather than nothing?
The answering of that question is a big theme with in this book. Astronomy and ecology need the arts and poetry in order to be understood fully. The facts that make our understanding of the world need the right story in order to be understood. What is inside us must connect to the external through art (or poetry or literature). That theme permeated this book, and I would think most sentient beings tend to embrace a version of that.
Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman are frequent characters in this book. I quoted Emerson above. Thoreau’s ‘Walden Pond’ needs to be read to fully appreciate his wanting to write bad poetry, complaining about trains making noise (similar to the Unabomber in that respect because he didn’t like the noise from the airplanes), constantly inviting others to disturb his solitude even though he says he wants to ‘live deliberately’, and learning ancient Greek. Whitman loves patriotism for its own sake; I think that is one of the most deadly of all errors and can lead to an exclusive Nationalism. That is to say he advocates loving one’s own ideas and/or mores because it is one’s own ideas and/or mores regardless to their own reason based validity. Yes, I’m doing a broad brush, but Thoreau and Whitman come with severe baggage.
Chance and choice was an expression the author used frequently. I think it would have been better to say time and chance. I don’t think the protagonists mentioned in this story really had choices in their life; I think they were born the way they were and were thrown into a world that forced conformity and compromise upon them; I think that they had to do what they did because they had to actualize themselves through their actions and the time period and the luck of the draw allowed them to rise above and be ‘something rather than nothing’, and Dickerson and Carson were born that way and did what they could to effect and affect change. We are all thrown into the world and forced into a culture and is up to us to discover our own meaning for ourselves and to actualize ourselves as best as we can, as the three protagonists did and as we all must do often in our own non-exemplary way.
Overall, I found this book somewhat tedious. I’m already very familiar with the transcendentalists and what they thought; there was a lot of familiar scientific name dropping, don’t authors realize most of us want to learn about the universe and are very familiar with those scientific characters, and why mention Vera Rubin so many times, I have read multiple books about her many well deserved accomplishments, I have the same complaint for all the other scientist she mentioned. And if I were interested in the lives of the three main protagonists, I would have read one of the many original researched biographies instead of this book. I’m really at a loss why anyone would recommend this book for it just struck me as unoriginal or lacking a compelling narrative.
The first book by the author of the prominent blog Brain Pickings - Maria Popova. Maybe it will disrupt my already compiled reading list.
I read the prelude just now and it is exciting! :)
I am loving this book. Amazing first sentence and it just gets better and better.