“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.”
A history of women who have changed our understanding of the universe, from the creator of Brain Pickings
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 catalysed the environmental movement.
Stretching between these figures is a cast of artists, writers, and scientists – mostly women, mostly queer – whose public contribution has 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.
“Ambitious, challenging and somewhat category-defying”
new York Times
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“These chapters on Dickinson are among the most compelling biographical pages I have ever read, rendering me incapable of closing the book … The final chapters on Rachel Carson were so moving that I cried for thirty-odd pages … When Popova quoted Carson on great books, “something that would raise you a little higher than you were yesterday, something that would make you willing and able for your part in the work of the world”, I knew that I had one such book in my hands”
“The polymathic Popova, presiding genius behind brainpickings.org, looks at some of the forgotten heroes of science, art, and culture … she peppers thoughtful, lucid consideration of acts of the imagination with stories that, if ever aired before, are too little known … Throughout her complex, consistently stimulating narrative, the author blends biography, cultural criticism, and journalism to forge elegant connections: Dickinson feeds onto Carson, who looks back to Mitchell, who looks forward to Popova herself, and with plenty of milestones along the way … A lyrical work of intellectual history, one that Popova’s many followers will await eagerly and that deserves to win her many more”
“Fascinating and compellingly written, bringing the reader into the lives of its subjects, ending with a long description of Rachel Carson’s life that has only made me love her more”
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 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.