As we transition from summer to autumn, perhaps spending a bit more time indoors, consider subscribing to Maria Popova’s weekly blog, The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings). If you enjoy Popova’s posts, you’ll certainly want to read her book Figuring, published in 2019.
An acquaintance told me about The Marginalian, Maria Popova’s weekly online publication, years ago and Sunday mornings haven’t been the same since. Where I used to await the Sunday editions of the Boston Globe or New York Times, I now open my email and savor The Marginalian as I sip my Sunday coffee. When Popova started mentioning her upcoming book, I was intrigued. If it was anything like her posts, I was more than interested.
Once released, Maria Popova’s Figuring, all 545 pages, became my coffee companion for many mornings, ones that felt like securing a velvet front-row seat at the theater awaiting a live performance on stage. William Shakespeare’s notable line, “All of life is a stage” never felt more apropos, but instead of being, as he continues, “merely players,” Popova presents one larger-than-life figure after another.
As the main characters appear, you discover who they are, their life trajectories, their contributions and connection to everything and everyone else. While reading, I’d often shake my head and exclaim, “I never knew that!” and “I hadn’t thought of that!” These comments were directed to Popova, not necessarily the figures whose lives she was illuminating. For although the biographical sketches do strike one chord of awe after another, it’s Popova’s words and thoughts, the way she splits things wide open and poetically presents what we’re quite sure we already know, but have either forgotten or never quite had the words for. Here’s one such passage, of which there are hundreds:
“So much of the beauty, so much of what propels our pursuit of truth, stems from the invisible connections – between ideas, between disciplines, between the denizens of a particular time and a particular place, between the interior world of each pioneer and the mark they leave on the cave walls of culture, between faint figures who pass each other in the nocturne before the torchlight of a revolution lights the new day, with little more than a half-nod of kinship and a match to change hands”(5).
Although Popova does lead off with a man, German science-great, Johannes Kepler, and mentions many other men throughout the book, refreshingly, they are not the main characters. The focus is on one female trailblazer after another.
Take Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908), a remarkable sculptor who attended medical school for a better grasp on anatomy and chemistry to aid her in her craft, while helping break barriers for women in both the sciences and the arts. Losing all of her siblings and her mother by the age of twelve, to offset such loss, Harriet’s father hurled her into a life of extreme awe and adventure which she took to a degree not many could even have imagined. How fascinating the twists and turns, joys and challenges of one brave enough to meet the world head on. In Popova’s words,
“Hosmer’s legacy is not to be found in what she created or failed to invent, not in the permanence of marble or in the escapist dream of perpetual motion, but in her very being, in the way she expanded the locus of possibility for others and enlarged their lives – our lives- by how she chose to live hers. Every woman artist born in the epochs since, every creative person who has carved out a purposeful life amid a culture where they are in any way “other,” every queer person who is comfortably out or benefits from living in a culture where there is hardly anything left to be “in,” is indebted to Harriet Hosmer – the bedrock of our being is marbled with ancestral genes of hers”(303).
Harriet Hosmer shares the remarkable stage that is this book with Maria Mitchell, Margaret Fuller, Emily Dickinson, Rachel Carson and so many more.
If you like biographies, history, contemplating the meaning of life and lives well-lived, you’ll treasure this book. If you get a kick out of making connections between influential figures, inventions and discoveries over time, you’ll love this book.
I’ve no crystal ball, but I’m figuring (I can’t help myself!) that this book will be considered a gem for centuries. Popova remarks, “What will survive of us are shoreless seeds and stardust,” and with this work, she masterfully scatters both.
Maria Popova is a Nasty Woman Writer.
© Maria Dintino 2019, 2023
Popova, Maria. Figuring. Vintage, 2019.