Cover image for Figuring / Maria Popova.
Title:
Figuring / Maria Popova.
ISBN:
9781524748135
Edition:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Pantheon Books, [2019]

©2019
Physical Description:
x, 578 pages ; 25 cm
Contents:
Only the dreamer wakes -- To find dismooned among the stardust -- What is lost and what is gained -- Of the infinite in the finite -- To figure and transfigure -- The much that calls for more -- To brave the light of the world -- That which exhausts and exalts -- Merely the beautiful -- Divided, indivisible -- Between sinew and spirit -- Between art and life -- The banality of survival -- Shadowing the light of immortality -- To gaze and turn away -- From romance to reason -- From terror to transcendence -- Unmastering -- The heart's circumference -- Bound by neither mind nor matter -- In the darkness of being -- Searching for totality -- Into the unfathomed -- Where splendor dwells -- To live and to vanish -- Between the scale of atoms and the scale of worlds -- Between the time of monarchs and the time of stars -- Tracing the thread of being -- From shoreless seeds to stardust.
Abstract:
"Figuring explores the complexities of love and the human search for truth and meaning through the interconnected lives of several historical figures across four centuries, beginning with the astronomer Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion, and ending with the marine biologist and author Rachel Carson, who catalyzed the environmental movement. Stretching between these figures is a cast of artists, writers, and scientists--mostly women, mostly queer--whose public contributions have risen out of their unclassifiable and often heartbreaking private relationships to change the way we understand, experience, and appreciate the universe. Among them are the astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science; the sculptor Harriet Hosmer, who did the same in art; the journalist and literary critic Margaret Fuller, who sparked the feminist movement; and the poet Emily Dickinson. Emanating from these lives are larger questions about the measure of a good life and what it means to leave a lasting mark of betterment on an imperfect world: Are achievement and acclaim enough for happiness? Is genius? Is love? Weaving through the narrative is a set of peripheral figures--Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Darwin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman--and a tapestry of themes spanning music, feminism, the history of science, the rise and decline of religion, and how the intersection of astronomy, poetry, and Transcendentalist philosophy fomented the environmental movement."--Dust jacket.
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Summary

Summary

Figuring explores the complexities of love and the human search for truth and meaning through the interconnected lives of several historical figures across four centuries--beginning with the astronomer Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion, and ending with the marine biologist and author Rachel Carson, who catalyzed the environmental movement.

Stretching between these figures is a cast of artists, writers, and scientists--mostly women, mostly queer--whose public contribution have risen out of their unclassifiable and often heartbreaking private relationships to change the way we understand, experience, and appreciate the universe. Among them are the astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science; the sculptor Harriet Hosmer, who did the same in art; the journalist and literary critic Margaret Fuller, who sparked the feminist movement; and the poet Emily Dickinson.

Emanating from these lives are larger questions about the measure of a good life and what it means to leave a lasting mark of betterment on an imperfect world: Are achievement and acclaim enough for happiness? Is genius? Is love? Weaving through the narrative is a set of peripheral figures--Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Darwin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman--and a tapestry of themes spanning music, feminism, the history of science, the rise and decline of religion, and how the intersection of astronomy, poetry, and Transcendentalist philosophy fomented the environmental movement.


Author Notes

MARIA POPOVA is a reader and a writer, and writes about what she reads on Brain Pickings (brainpickings.org), which is included in the Library of Congress's permanent digital archive of culturally valuable materials. She hosts The Universe in Verse -- an annual celebration of science through poetry--at the interdisciplinary cultural center Pioneer Works in Brooklyn. She grew up in Bulgaria immersed in music and mathematics.


Reviews 1

Library Journal Review

The early 19th-century transcendentalists included many extraordinary individuals, the most famous being Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. But they are merely supporting characters in this queer-, female-centric narrative from Popova (A Velocity of Being). This work features astronomer Maria Mitchell (familiar to readers of Dava Sobel's The Glass Universe); poet Emily Dickinson; marine biologist and environmental author Rachel Carson; and literary critic Margaret Fuller, who takes center stage, in stories strung together through a series of both weak and strong associations. Selections also touch on the lives of contemporaries such as educator Mary Peabody, who coined the term transcendentalism, and sculptor Harriet Hosmer. Among all the pieces, Carson's story, however, reads like an entirely different book in the same series. Similarly, the first chapter on astronomer Johannes Kepler is a bit out of place and serves only to introduce Mitchell. Moreover, Popova's attempts to imitate writers she admires with her stream-of-consciousness style is ultimately distracting and sometimes irrelevant. VERDICT Despite its flaws, this hidden gem of a work will enthrall readers seeking underrepresented voices in the history of science and literature.-Cate Schneiderman, Emerson Coll., Boston © Copyright 2019. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

0 All of it--the rings of Saturn and my father's wedding band, the underbelly of the clouds pinked by the rising sun, Einstein's brain bathing in a jar of formaldehyde, every grain of sand that made the glass that made the jar and each idea Einstein ever had, the shep­herdess singing in the Rila mountains of my native Bulgaria and each one of her sheep, every hair on Chance's velveteen dog ears and Marianne Moore's red braid and the whiskers of Montaigne's cat, every translucent fingernail on my friend Amanda's newborn son, every stone with which Virginia Woolf filled her coat pockets before wading into the River Ouse to drown, every copper atom composing the disc that carried arias aboard the first human-made object to enter interstellar space and every oak splinter of the floor­boards onto which Beethoven collapsed in the fit of fury that cost him his hearing, the wetness of every tear that has ever been wept over a grave and the yellow of the beak of every raven that has ever watched the weepers, every cell in Galileo's fleshy finger and every molecule of gas and dust that made the moons of Jupiter to which it pointed, the Dipper of freckles constellating the olive firmament of a certain forearm I love and every axonal flutter of the tender­ness with which I love her, all the facts and figments by which we are perpetually figuring and reconfiguring reality--it all banged into being 13.8 billion years ago from a single source, no louder than the opening note of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, no larger than the dot levitating over the small i , the I lowered from the pedestal of ego.   How can we know this and still succumb to the illusion of separ­ateness, of otherness? This veneer must have been what the conflu­ence of accidents and atoms known as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., saw through when he spoke of our "inescapable network of mutu­ality," what Walt Whitman punctured when he wrote that "every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."   One autumn morning, as I read a dead poet's letters in my friend Wendy's backyard in San Francisco, I glimpse a fragment of that atomic mutuality. Midsentence, my peripheral vision--that glory of instinct honed by millennia of evolution--pulls me toward a mirac­ulous sight: a small, shimmering red leaf twirling in midair. It seems for a moment to be dancing its final descent. But no--it remains sus­pended there, six feet above ground, orbiting an invisible center by an invisible force. For an instant I can see how such imperceptible causalities could drive the human mind to superstition, could impel medieval villagers to seek explanation in magic and witchcraft. But then I step closer and notice a fine spider's web glistening in the air above the leaf, conspiring with gravity in this spinning miracle.   Neither the spider has planned for the leaf nor the leaf for the spider--and yet there they are, an accidental pendulum propelled by the same forces that cradle the moons of Jupiter in orbit, animated into this ephemeral early-morning splendor by eternal cosmic laws impervious to beauty and indifferent to meaning, yet replete with both to the bewildered human consciousness beholding it.   We spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins. We snatch our freeze-frame of life from the simultaneity of existence by holding on to illusions of permanence, congruence, and linearity; of static selves and lives that unfold in sensical narratives. All the while, we mistake chance for choice, our labels and models of things for the things themselves, our records for our history. History is not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance.   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 nonlinearly, 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? Two Nobel Prizes don't seem to recompense the melancholy radiating from every photograph of the woman in the black laboratory dress. Is success a guarantee of fulfillment, or merely a promise as precarious as a marital vow? How, in this blink of existence bookended by nothing­ness, do we attain completeness of being?   There are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives.   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. Excerpted from Figuring by Maria Popova All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.