Figuring may be your first book, but like me, thousands of people know of you and your work through your famous blog, Brain Pickings. I found out from the dust jacket that America’s Library of Congress has included it in its permanent digital archive of culturally valuable material, and I can think of few things more deserving.
Brain Pickings, where you’ve been curating some of the finest ideas from art, science and literature since 2005, is a part of the digital habitat for many of us. We’ve also come to expect words of wisdom, beauty and comfort from your social media feeds or newsletters.
But for old-schoolers like me, who are still attached to the guilty romance of paper books, holding a physical copy of what I imagine is the most precious distillation of Brain Pickings has been special. I’ve carried around the weight of its 558 hard-bound pages fondly for three weeks everywhere I’ve been.
Figuring, in its familiar and happy yellow cover, has been my constant companion through metro and cab rides, in offices, cafes and even bars. It has often been a conversation starter, following which I’ve excitedly read excerpts to friends and family, and sometimes even relative strangers.
I’ve shared bits of it on my Twitter and Instagram, hoping they would move people the way they moved me. Even as I put the book away now, I keep the gifts of contemplation, catharsis and compassion that you’ve so generously given in its pages.
As I journeyed through the book, I was constantly amazed by the breadth of your reading, the depth of your insights, and your tremendous gift of connecting the dots. You describe yourself as a reader above everything else; now I see why. Page after page as you rapidly moved from one reference to the next, I struggled to keep up with my notes, thinking about all those books you’ve read.
Sometimes I imagined you doing exactly the same things as I do: A woman in a big city, in her mid-30s, hunched over her favourite book, at her favourite café, noting her favourite things – only, you were across the world. I even felt a twinge of jealousy sometimes at the sheer volume of your knowledge. You’ve showed me things I’d never seen, made me think things I’d never thought.
Reading Figuring has been a little bit like a ride on Aladdin’s magic carpet that has shown me “a whole new world”. Without these gems that you’ve handpicked so carefully, I doubt if my curiosities would have extended themselves to delve more than superficially into the history of the other side of the world. There was a sad realisation too, of the cultural and knowledge biases and bubbles we manage to lock ourselves into even today. But there was also a feeling of being set free.
So thank you for acquainting me with the public and personal histories of American and European greats such as astronomer Maria Mitchell, sculptor Harriet Hosmer, journalist and editor, Margaret Fuller, poet Emily Dickinson, and scientist, Rachel Carson. Thank you for shining the spotlight on both, the genius and the queerness of these women.
There are many lessons on beauty and courage in there. When you casually pepper their awe-inspiring stories with narratives of other intellectual giants of the 19th and 20th centuries, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mary Somerville, Charles Darwin, Elizabeth and Robert Browning, Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass or Nathaniel Hawthorne, sometimes it even feels like a rather large capsule of knowledge to swallow. But you make it effortless and never pedantic.
There is much to be drawn from the hundreds of facts you’ve captured through meticulous research and, perhaps, equally meticulous love. There is much to be learnt from the many stories of victory of the arts, of the sciences, of feminism, of life itself. One of my most favourite ones is that the term “scientist” was invented out of the necessity for describing a woman polymath, Mary Somerville, whose genius could not be contained in the gendered descriptors of the 19th century.
Discovering Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot in your book felt like a revelation most priceless, and having found my prophet. I feel compelled to borrow his term, the “Golden Record” to describe your book, for it is in so many ways what the phonographs Sagan curated for the Voyager are – a repository of some of the most beautiful and noble things that human beings have achieved and are capable of.
Many things struck me about your book, the first being its title. It is easy to be charmed by its terseness and apparent vagueness. But the force of its intent (and yours) manifests only in the act of reading it.
Your book offers a joyous act of meditation through the lives of legends, who were nevertheless as human as you and I and the next person. When you juxtapose a bestselling author’s success with the failings of her love, when you give equal due to the jubilation over the discovery of a comet and to reciprocated feelings, when you speak in the same breath of the courage of an environmental crusader and the many pains of her mortal flesh, you demonstrate the universe’s equipoise.
Another feature that shines through Figuring is your love running seamlessly across the arts and the sciences. Many of us are taught numbers in a way that makes us fear and hate them. I will pride myself on having read volumes on art, literature and history, but will stick my head in the sand when confronted with a Richard Feynman or a Srinivasa Ramanujan. Science and humanities live like neighbours on the same floor, having never spoken to each other or even seen their faces.
Thank you for opening those bolted doors. Watching you glide from the personal to the cosmic and back, watching you write about poetry and astronomy without breaking a stride, one cannot but see that the humanities and the sciences are not divorced from each other. Thank you for showing me the maths in music and the music in maths.
This is a book I wish for every reader to possess, but as you say, both choice and chance will play equal parts in making that happen. I can only do my bit and pass on the germ of my enthusiastic admiration a little further. And here is a small part of the immense gift of your words:
“Some truths, like beauty, are best illuminated by the sidewise gleam of figuring, of meaning-making. In the course of our figuring, orbits intersect, often unbeknownst to the bodies they carry – intersections mappable only from the distance of decades or centuries. Facts crosshatch with other facts to shade in the nuances of a larger truth – not relativism, no, but the mightiest realism we have. We slice through the simultaneity by being everything at once: our first names and our last names, our loneliness and our society, our bold ambition and our blind hope, our unrequited and part-requited loves. Lives are lived in parallel and perpendicular, fathomed non-linearly, figured not in the straight graphs of ‘biography’ but in many-sided, many splendored diagrams. Lives interweave with other lives, and out of the tapestry arise hints at answers to questions that raze to the bone of life: what are the building blocks of character, of contentment, of lasting achievement? How does a person come into self-possession and sovereignty of mind against the tide of convention and unreasoning collectivism? Does genius suffice for happiness, does distinction, does love?”
I cannot thank you enough for asking these questions, Maria, in a world where opinions and answers are doled out thoughtlessly.
Yours in gratitude,
Figuring, Maria Popova, Pantheon.