Every time I visit blogger, literary and cultural critic Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings website, I experience an awareness of life and leave feeling more knowledgeable. An exploration of famous artists and their works in the pursuit of the ever elusive meaning of life, she’s managed to bring a taste of this offline in her first book, Figuring.
What’s amusing is I didn’t realize it wasn’t fiction until after I started reading it. But with Popova’s ability to weave a tale seamlessly into her nonfiction, the narrative nonfiction explores the lives of famous artists whose wisdom has been distilled into the type of inspirational quotes you’d find on any like-minded site delving into the mysteries of life, love, and the fluid sexuality of artists back in the day.
Popova explores artists (mostly women, and generally queer) ranging from Maria Mitchell, an astronomer who paved the way for women in science, to Margaret Fuller, an American journalist, editor, and women’s advocate who ended up working as a literary critic at the New York Tribune – one of few women to ever do so. In what many consider her masterpiece, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, Fuller examines a woman’s place in society while urging them to reach further for intellectual, emotional, and spiritual fulfillment, encouraging independence from what society expects of them. She accomplishes this through ‘conversations’, holding impassioned classes for women around literature, education, mythology, and philosophy.
Popova continues on her feminist tract weaving from Fuller to Harriet Hosmer, famed sculptor who made the art world (which was dominated by men at the time) sit up and take notice. Last but definitely not least, is Emily Dickinson, one of America’s most famous and prolific poets of all time. A lot of the artists Popova explores in her book dealt with a variety of illnesses from childhood all the way to adulthood. It’s astounding to read what people achieved regardless of setbacks in their health. Nothing could keep these artists and scientists from discovering the answer to the bigger question that constantly plagues us: why are we here? And what is the meaning of life?
Through all the stories Popova has woven together, she introduces tertiary characters such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charles Darwin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman, to name a few. She sprinkles these names throughout, giving her stories more weight.
I love how Popova starts off with known artists (some who were also scientists), then creates tangents to show how everyone and everything is connected in the universe. Which is true – we’re all connected and the synchronicities that we experience daily merely emphasizes that fact. But, when Popova starts connecting these artists and scientists like a connect the dots game, the story loses its steam. She’ll start with an example of a famous (usually lesbian) artist, then introduces another artist and talks about their life for several pages before going back to her original subject.
At times this lack of structure became super intrusive and I lost track who she was originally speaking about. It felt like she was trying hard to maintain a certain status quo (given Popova is known for high-brow critiques), but her book often falls short of this goal. This was slightly upsetting as her writing is usually more consistent.
That said, Figuring is a book for people who continue to return to the question of what defines life for each and every one of us. It leads you down a road where artists and scientists are on a lifelong quest to answer this timeless question, only to realize that perhaps there really isn’t an answer, that each person will have their own answer to that question. Those looking for a read similar in style and intellectual scope to Popova’s Brain Pickings’ site, you’ll definitely enjoy this book. Just remember to pay attention – very close attention.