If you picked up a copy of Figuring in something as old-fashioned as a bookshop and had never heard of Maria Popova, it would be hard to fathom exactly what you were looking at. It’s a hefty book with a bright yellow cover adorned with a mysterious flower-trumpet-diagram. On the back, instead a snappy blurb, there’s a meandering quotation from the book’s introduction that leaves you none the wiser. A glimpse inside gives few clues to the book’s contents, with lower-case chapter titles like “unmastering” and “that which exhausts and exalts”. It’s a disorientating experience, but the message is clear: Popova wants readers to abandon their preconceptions and simply dive in.
In my review of Figuring for this week’s Times Literary Supplement I did place it in a category, describing it as an unusual form of group biography (there’s a snippet of my review below – the rest is behind a paywall, but there’s an excellent essay by Ruth Scurr in this special ‘life writing’ TLS, free to read here.) My view of Popova’s book reflects my own interest in the stories of the women she describes (Margaret Fuller, Maria Mitchell, Rachel Carson) and the author herself might disagree with me about labelling it as a biography. She’s a Bulgarian-born writer who lives in New York and is the author of a popular blog ‘Brainpickings.org’ that has been covering a wide range of subjects for 13 years.
Paradoxically perhaps, the Brain Pickings website is an up-to-the minute format that goes against what Popova sees as the Internet’s tendency to place a high value on everything new. “It suggests that just because something is more recent, it’s more relevant,” she says, “yet, in culture, the best ideas are timeless, they have no expiration date.” (Guardian interview, 30.12.12)
Popova’s new book Figuring also aims to spark interest in what links a wide variety of ideas and people over a period of four hundred years. She tells the intermingled stories of individuals who refused to conform and passionately defends their choices. It’s a “cosmos of connections” with Popova as the astronaut author-pilot and personal guide. Fasten your seatbelts, readers.
©Ann Kennedy Smith (27 April 2019)