This book is, perhaps, perfectly suited to the forced isolation of a global pandemic.
Maria Popova is interesting. Her website and blog, Brain Pickings, offers top shelf intellectual nourishment in consumable bites.
Native to Bulgaria, long time resident of New York City, mathematician, poet, reader and consumer of the world, for thirteen years she has curated and shared her passions and interests via the website.
Her book, Figuring, is difficult to classify, other than to say it is a collection of stories about amazing people past and their interweaving and ageless challenges and concerns.
Part creative non-fiction, part biography, part love letter from a voracious reader to the world of books she inhabits and explores, Figuring is a reading experience to be savoured.
Popova is unapologetic in her desire for the book to be challenging and enduring. It raises the big, eternal questions of the human condition. She boldly declared her hope it ‘has the shelf life of a shelf, not a banana’.
The book takes its name, at least to my understanding of the play on words, of a number of significant historical figures ranging from Johannes Kepler, seventeenth century astronomer and polymath, to Rachel Carson, twentieth century scientist and author.
The title also relates to the verb form, as in figuring something out, as these people aimed to make sense of their worlds via science, mathematics and literature. Often, their concern was also directed at the very human challenge of solving this problem called living.
In turn, their figurings contributed a huge amount to our knowledge and understanding of the universe and life within it.
What I most enjoyed, though, was the ability for Popova’s book to bridge the conventional chasm between science and literature.
Figuring demonstrates the long association between these two fields, one that we ignore when applying a binary classification. We hear all the time that people are either artsy-fartsy literary types, or ‘just the facts m’am’ STEM types, left and right brained, either/or and not both.
Well, Popova and her historical figures say hooey to all that.
Kepler, in addition to his work as an astronomer, published ‘Somnium, or Dream’ in 1609, perhaps the first science fiction story. He also acted in defence of his mother, accused of witchcraft, all the while advancing the understanding of the cosmos to an unheralded degree.
Jumping ahead to the first half of the 19th century in New England, the tale visits the remarkable Maria Mitchell, who occupies a temporal space with a hugely influential cast of scientists and writers who cast a mighty shadow over the canon of Western culture.
Mitchell in turn inspires Harriet Hosmer, pioneering sculptor and photographer, then overlaps with Margaret Fuller, journalist and literary critic in a time when women were meant to be quiet.
Overlapping the same part of the world and time, Emily Dickinson writes her poetry from the isolation of her room and self imposed bubble. Later, in the middle part of the twentieth century, marine biologist Rachel Carson writes her long form investigations into nature that capture the attention of the public and spawns what would become the environmental movement.
Peripheral figures to these remarkable stories are actually the ones I admit to knowing better, no doubt because they are celebrated more in the canon I was raised on – Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
As for the central figures, they carried their burdens and had arduous, difficult relationships often suppressed by the demands of society. Many lived tragically and wrote profoundly in stunning clarity. In turn, they inspired and influences each other, often without knowing, fuelling a process of intellectual striving that continues to this day.
They also were obsessed, tormented, blessed and cursed by the pursuit and experience of love and loving in all forms.
Perhaps we should be aggrieved or ashamed that their stories are not more widely known and celebrated, or perhaps they are and my ignorance is exposed.
Either way, these historical figures are, in many ways, perfect role models for those adrift, curious and confined by circumstance.
Most definitely, they are for those who don’t fit the mould.
As mentioned, this is a book to be read slowly and savoured, as much for the depth of Popova’s writing and the need for a break after even a few pages to ruminate and reflect.
If nothing else, in a period where the noisy chatter of mass consumption is so relentlessly dark and apparently insurmountable, there is a distinct joy in escaping into the stories and minds of people long gone who, in their own ways, lived through much, much worse.
As Popova writes, there are many kids of beautiful lives. Now is the perfect time to introduce ourselves to them, if only to provide perspective on our own lives and troubles.