A review of Figuring by Maria Popova

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

by Maria Popova
Canongate Books Ltd
ISBN: 9781786897244, Hardcover, April 2019, 592pgs

Anyone who follows Maria Popova’s blog Brain Pickings will understand her very unique style which encompasses timeless and powerful explorations taken from literature, art, science, and philosophy and presents a distillation that is both current and inspiring.  Figuring operates in a similar way – tying together apparently disparate biographical, scientific and literary threads into a thesis that transcends the individual stories of the subjects, fascinating as they are, and speaks to questions that concern all of us: how to live and love creatively, responsibly and meaningfully. The book, which presents an historical progress through a selected series of characters, begins in 1617 with a “spindly middle-aged mathematician with a soaring mind, a sunken heart, and bad skin”, the astronomer Johannes Kepler. Though the sweep of Popova’s research is broad and pulls in a wide range of historical characters, books and ideas, subsequent chapters pivot around American Astronomer Maria Mitchell and Scottish scientist Mary Somerville, astronomer Carolyn Herschel, literary critic Margaret Fuller, artist Harriet Hosmer, poet Emily Dickinson, and nearly century later, Rachel Carson. Though they may seem unconnected, the characters weave in and around one another, and Popova does an incredible job of making those connections, paralleling lives, identifying influences, and linking together the many threads that bind these people. Additional characters such as Darwin, Emerson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Oppenheimer, are pulled into the gravity created partly by the characters themselves, but also the gravitas that Popova confers upon them.  The lives of the characters in Figuring intertwine sometimes directly, as in the case of Mitchell and Somerville, and indirectly through influence and thematically:

The art arises from the entirety of the artist—from what Margaret Fuller caked one’s “fulness of being”—and no element therein can be scalpel off as irrelevant to the whole. To understand the richness and complexity of the interiority that creates the externality of art is to have a richer appreciation of the art itself, it-indivisible-self. (408-409)

The links converge in the present tense of Popova herself, providing immediacy through her use of ‘real time’, sharing her own experiences as she researches, in conjunction with the historical time of her characters, who like all of us, love, ache, and find both pain and solace in the act of creating:

I am struck by this awareness whenever I reread my own diaries from earlier years, penned by past selves, rife with he wishfulness and denial by which we navigate the incomprehensible. I am struck by it doubly when I read a biography of a person long gone, for it lacks even the tenuous net fo personal memory. (336)

Throughout the book there is what can only be described as deep love for these giants of science, art and literature. Popova’s research is extensive, and there is a comprehensive bibliography at the back.  But it’s not just the scholarship that makes Figuring so warm and engaging. It’s also the empathy. These aren’t just geniuses.  They’re also people we can relate to.  Emily Dickinson, in particular, comes across with such a delicacy and radiance that we begin to understand the odd recluse whose great thwarted love lasts a lifetime, and whose poetic work heralded the modernist movement in poetry. Popova’s description of the energy of Dickinson’s poetry is among the best I’ve seen anywhere: 

In words and dashes dealt like breaths, like blades, like bullets, she would limn the terror of abandonment in a short verse, the soaring fragility of hope in a single line, meticulously calibrating the gravitational pull of her words to keep the reader suspended along the event horizon of meaning, perpetually circling but never fully falling into the depths of her truth. (307)

Though the historical characters that people Figuring are very well known, these are not the usual portraits.  Like Brain Pickings, Popova’s long-running and super-popular blog, the main characters are just the starting point for a book that travels across and through so many disciplines and across a four century timeline. Popova is always more interested in the minutia or as she calls it, the extended marginalia, than the grand gesture: the forgotten love letters, the photographs in a drawer, the musical performance only a small group of people heard.  She highlights the secret subversions of the mannered, often painfully restrictive heteronormative worlds in which these figures live, and the way in which they overcome the limits of their society towards exquisite creativity that is timeless. The bigger story, which comes out of this work, is that we are all connected.  The connections that Popova draws are deep seated, and once she makes them they become permanent – so that this very act of connecting is its own form of creation – not just a way of understanding: 

The sun was just about to set over the hilltops alive with spring when she [Carsons] drew her last breath, molecules that had once pulsated in the lungs of Kepler, of Dickinson, of Fuller, of every other human who had ever breathed the atmosphere of this pale blue dot. (530)

Popova’s writing is consistently gorgeous. Figurings is many things, but above all, a deep engagement with a continuum of love, loss, discovery and artistic beauty. It’s an exploration of what our short, often tragic lives mean, or as Popova so beautifully puts it, a “hungry fusion of wonder and curiosity, with which we seek to understand the universe.” Figurings is an extraordinary book, hard to bound and define, and so rich and beautiful, it demands multiple re-readings.