Figuring
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 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.

Figuring Details

TitleFiguring
Author
LanguageEnglish
ReleaseFeb 5th, 2019
PublisherPantheon Books
ISBN-139781524748135
Rating
GenreNonfiction, Philosophy, History, Science, Writing, Essays, Feminism

Figuring Review

  • Rebecca
    January 1, 1970
    I have fallen in love with Maria Popova's weekly newsletter, Brain Pickings, and I cannot wait for this book.
  • Vivek Tejuja
    January 1, 1970
    How does one begin to explain a book like Figuring? Honestly, I don’t know, however, I shall try. The book Figuring is much like Popova’s site, brainpickings.org: it is sort of a Russian doll, revealing layer after layer after layer, only if you wish to see it, or perhaps experience it. Figuring is a book that you should read with the mindset of allowing the book to take it where it wants to, without expecting something too traditional or run of the mill.Figuring is a beautiful combination of sc How does one begin to explain a book like Figuring? Honestly, I don’t know, however, I shall try. The book Figuring is much like Popova’s site, brainpickings.org: it is sort of a Russian doll, revealing layer after layer after layer, only if you wish to see it, or perhaps experience it. Figuring is a book that you should read with the mindset of allowing the book to take it where it wants to, without expecting something too traditional or run of the mill.Figuring is a beautiful combination of science with art. The alignment sticks – how each of them is intertwined and how art inspires science and vice-versa. It is like her website, only more detailed – pieces that go on and go and that’s what I loved as a reader, knowing I didn’t have to scroll up or down and could be after reading one paragraph or two and going back to it after a cup of tea.Maria Popova’s book brings the wonder of scientists and then combines it with hearts and emotions of people, mainly women scientists and that to me was most unique. Figures looks at love, and truth through the interconnected lives of historical figures across four centuries. She begins with the astronomer Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion, and it ends with Rachel Carson who was so important in the environmental movement.And in all of this, Popova includes more artists, writers, and scientists (which makes it even more fun to read) – women, and queer and their contribution. What I love about Figuring is that it is like a rabbit hole that you would love getting into. Maria Popova interconnects, segregates, and makes you question matters of life, love, and the heart and what are we doing to leave an impression on the world.Figuring asks big questions and it isn’t afraid of doing that. There is so much happening in the book that it takes some time to assimilate all of that, and only then can you get into its groove (or at least that’s what happened to me). Figuring would seem disconnected and disjointed in most places, till it all falls into place and that’s when you as a reader start seeing it for what it is. The book is a marriage of art, life, science, music, philosophy, feminism, decline of religion, free love, astronomy and poetry, and honestly no one better to do it than our very trusted Brain Picker.
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  • Melissa
    January 1, 1970
    For the first third or so of the book I wasn’t quite sure what Popova was really getting at. There were a lot of historical figures surrounding her “main” subjects and I was having a little bit of trouble keeping up with the jumps back and forth (and I kept confusing Maria Mitchell and Margaret Fuller, oops). But then Popova got to her chapters on Emily Dickinson and just wow. Blew me away. That was when the book began to gel for me and I started to really understand that Popova was drawing all For the first third or so of the book I wasn’t quite sure what Popova was really getting at. There were a lot of historical figures surrounding her “main” subjects and I was having a little bit of trouble keeping up with the jumps back and forth (and I kept confusing Maria Mitchell and Margaret Fuller, oops). But then Popova got to her chapters on Emily Dickinson and just wow. Blew me away. That was when the book began to gel for me and I started to really understand that Popova was drawing all these parallels between geniuses ahead of their times, their successes and set-backs, the rich relationships they formed (some romantic, some not, some that could be considered queer, some more “conventional”), and how their work creates a web from generation to generation, from Kepler to Dickinson to Rachel Carson. A book to be savored.
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  • Kristina Stefanova
    January 1, 1970
    The first book by the author of the prominent blog Brain Pickings - Maria Popova. Maybe it will disrupt my already compiled reading list.I read the prelude just now and it is exciting! :)
  • Ana
    January 1, 1970
    The trouble of doing your research, whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, is that - seduced by those happy coincidences and curious facts - you feel compelled to include almost everything in your final work. I know full well how frustrating is having to read dozens of articles, check as many books and references only to write 10-page essays. A name in a letter, an obscure allusion in a poem, or a detailed footnote can send anyone in that time-consuming frenzy of wanting to know more. The The trouble of doing your research, whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, is that - seduced by those happy coincidences and curious facts - you feel compelled to include almost everything in your final work. I know full well how frustrating is having to read dozens of articles, check as many books and references only to write 10-page essays. A name in a letter, an obscure allusion in a poem, or a detailed footnote can send anyone in that time-consuming frenzy of wanting to know more. The thing is knowing when to stop and not falling in the trap of putting everything at the readers’ feet. They might want to stamp on it only to get to the point. And most often then not, I fail to see a clear connection between the events and all these amazing people mentioned in the book other than the author wanting there to be one. I read a lot of nonfiction as part of my research, some more abstract than others, but I can’t remember the last time I was this detached, if not bored, by the facts put before me or irritated by how long-winded and disjointed the writing is. There are moments when the text flows beautifully, the personal taking over from the historical, such as when she visited Emily Dickinson’s room… but these are too few and too sparsely sprinkled throughout the book. “One hundred thirty-one years after Emily Dickinson’s death, I stand in her bedroom, chasing the ghost of her truth. I am struck by the contrast between the bellowing darkness of her poems and the fount of sunlight flooding in through the two fully windowed walls. I am struck, too, by the scale of it: Her mahogany sleigh bed is practically child-sized, her cherrywood writing desk almost a miniature at seventeen and a half inches square.” I’m not sure that every reader of Brain Pickings will find this an enjoyable read. Perhaps it was not meant to be one. That being said, I was disappointed, my expectations were maybe a tad too high. ↠ 2.5 stars
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  • Yana
    January 1, 1970
    От години съм абонирана за страничката Brain Pickings на Мария Попова, книгата ми изглежда като логична следваща стъпка за нея. Сигурна съм, че ще е супер.
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  • Asif B.
    January 1, 1970
    michigan daily review to come -- but this was a dense beautiful read
  • Jean Rhude
    January 1, 1970
    I am loving this book. Amazing first sentence and it just gets better and better.
  • fewpagesmore
    January 1, 1970
    The author of this book, Maria Popova is a well known curator of the excellent website brainpickings.org. Brain pickings has an eclectic collection of articles, books and other writings from various disciplines. Each post introduces a work followed by the author's unique take on the creative work. This site has provided me tons of recommendations for what next to read. And that is why I jumped into this book as soon as i saw it on my recommended list on goodreads. If nothing else this book would The author of this book, Maria Popova is a well known curator of the excellent website brainpickings.org. Brain pickings has an eclectic collection of articles, books and other writings from various disciplines. Each post introduces a work followed by the author's unique take on the creative work. This site has provided me tons of recommendations for what next to read. And that is why I jumped into this book as soon as i saw it on my recommended list on goodreads. If nothing else this book would be a treasure of trove of new paths to explore in my reading journey.The book opens with a bang. It starts with a never-ending sentence that is probably one of the longest that I've ever read. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Tyco Brahe and Kepler. It brought back nostalgia of when I first read Carl Sagan's Cosmos and found out how these individuals were as big contributors to the field of astronomy to the more famous names such as Galileo. I had started reading this book even without finding out what the book was about. And I thought the first chapter was giving me an idea of what to expect.But after reading a few chapters, I feel I may have abandon this book because I still don't have a clear picture of what the author is trying to say. The book flutters around constantly and introduces a lot of characters at the cost of clarity and coherence.However, a few chapters down, I lost interest in the material due to the constant flitting back and forth, especially when the author is referencing quotes by others or transitioning into a new character. "A century later", "Exactly seventeen years later", "Fifteen centuries ago," etc. It seemed like the author was trying too hard to fit these disparate thoughts by different individuals into a single narrative. It seemed forced, in my opinion, more like a collection of essays glued into a single narrative.Moreover the author has used a lot of flowery language at many places when something simple would have sufficed. The opening sentence(if you can call it that) is a case in point. When you quote a lot of writings by other authors in your work, and the language of the quote is simpler than your interpretation of it, there is something going wrong. It feels like the author is trying to make an impression but failing.I very much wanted to like this book because of the incomparable work that the author has done in building and maintaining the quality of brain pickings. But sadly the same does not translate in this work by her. And this book figuring will stay un-figured for me for quite some time.
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  • Mehrsa
    January 1, 1970
    I love Popova's blog and I've been following her for years. She is an excellent curator. But I don't think her skills work in book format. There were some really beautiful stories in here--especially at the end. If the book had just been Emily Dickinson And Rachel Carson, it would have been great, but there are too many people in here and not enough of a thread to tie them together.
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  • Gary Beauregard Bottomley
    January 1, 1970
    I don’t really like to read biographies. Even at that, this book was not strictly a biography, but at its core it was three not very original biographies of three different women, Margret Fuller, Emily Dickerson, and Rachel Carson. I just can’t help but think that real biographers have covered those three people in more original depth in other sources than this author did. The author quoted Virginia Woolf to the effect that we should be more focused on the poetry than the poet. I tend to agree w I don’t really like to read biographies. Even at that, this book was not strictly a biography, but at its core it was three not very original biographies of three different women, Margret Fuller, Emily Dickerson, and Rachel Carson. I just can’t help but think that real biographers have covered those three people in more original depth in other sources than this author did. The author quoted Virginia Woolf to the effect that we should be more focused on the poetry than the poet. I tend to agree with that sentiment. The author in the Fuller section of the book had her character saying they wanted a person to know them not for what they thought but for their character, and the author quoted Emerson to the effect that it’s our character not our intellect that matters. I’m more interested in learning about what somebody thought than whom they had sex with, or who they didn’t love or what their character consisted of. Show me their equations, or their philosophy, but when it comes to their experiences or their character it tends to bore me. It’s important to note that the author framed the story telling within a transcendentalist narrative. By way of me over simplifying, the transcendentalists would tend to believe that everything is interconnected, and truth is beauty and beauty is truth and that is all we need to know, and meaning is assigned by us to bridge the two. In addition, we grasp the infinite from our finite experiences and love is the glue that holds the universe together, and knowledge is less important than feelings (she quoted Carson saying that multiple times). There was a phrase I liked within the Fuller section; it went like this ‘why is there something rather than nothing’. It wasn’t really referring to the cosmological big question, but, rather, how does a person become authentic to their selves, that is actualize their full potential through phronesis (an Aristotelian word which could be translated by ‘prudence’). And when one is born with a sexual identity not conforming to the stifling norms of the time period and is also a member of the non-privileged group such as a woman or non-white, how does one become something rather than nothing? The answering of that question is a big theme with in this book. Astronomy and ecology need the arts and poetry in order to be understood fully. The facts that make our understanding of the world need the right story in order to be understood. What is inside us must connect to the external through art (or poetry or literature). That theme permeated this book, and I would think most sentient beings tend to embrace a version of that. Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman are frequent characters in this book. I quoted Emerson above. Thoreau’s ‘Walden Pond’ needs to be read to fully appreciate his wanting to write bad poetry, complaining about trains making noise (similar to the Unabomber in that respect because he didn’t like the noise from the airplanes), constantly inviting others to disturb his solitude even though he says he wants to ‘live deliberately’, and learning ancient Greek. Whitman loves patriotism for its own sake; I think that is one of the most deadly of all errors and can lead to an exclusive Nationalism. That is to say he advocates loving one’s own ideas and/or mores because it is one’s own ideas and/or mores regardless to their own reason based validity. Yes, I’m doing a broad brush, but Thoreau and Whitman come with severe baggage. Chance and choice was an expression the author used frequently. I think it would have been better to say time and chance. I don’t think the protagonists mentioned in this story really had choices in their life; I think they were born the way they were and were thrown into a world that forced conformity and compromise upon them; I think that they had to do what they did because they had to actualize themselves through their actions and the time period and the luck of the draw allowed them to rise above and be ‘something rather than nothing’, and Dickerson and Carson were born that way and did what they could to effect and affect change. We are all thrown into the world and forced into a culture and is up to us to discover our own meaning for ourselves and to actualize ourselves as best as we can, as the three protagonists did and as we all must do often in our own non-exemplary way. Overall, I found this book somewhat tedious. I’m already very familiar with the transcendentalists and what they thought; there was a lot of familiar scientific name dropping, don’t authors realize most of us want to learn about the universe and are very familiar with those scientific characters, and why mention Vera Rubin so many times, I have read multiple books about her many well deserved accomplishments, I have the same complaint for all the other scientist she mentioned. And if I were interested in the lives of the three main protagonists, I would have read one of the many original researched biographies instead of this book. I’m really at a loss why anyone would recommend this book for it just struck me as unoriginal or lacking a compelling narrative.
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  • Josh
    January 1, 1970
    As soon as I finished "Figuring," I sent the copy I read to one of my closest friends, and I only wish I had more copies to send to more people.As I read this book, I found it very difficult to describe what it was about when people asked. "Figuring" does not comfortably fit into any genre. It's not quite biography, not quite history, not quite science, not quite poetry--and yet, it's all of those and more. It transcends genre. It's a lyrical meditation on connection and meaning that traverses c As soon as I finished "Figuring," I sent the copy I read to one of my closest friends, and I only wish I had more copies to send to more people.As I read this book, I found it very difficult to describe what it was about when people asked. "Figuring" does not comfortably fit into any genre. It's not quite biography, not quite history, not quite science, not quite poetry--and yet, it's all of those and more. It transcends genre. It's a lyrical meditation on connection and meaning that traverses centuries and disciplines to explore what life has meant to a caste of historical figures and thereby to expand the reader's imagination of what their own life can be and mean.It's tempting to me to place "Figuring" as a contemporary expression of American Transcendentalism, alive as it is with the ideas of that era. But I think that would be a misreading. Transcendentalism celebrated everything that set the individual apart from the crowd, and its pivotal thinkers--many of whom make up the caste of this book--sang the songs of themselves. Maria Popova does not sing herself: she sings the ecosystem to which she belongs, a system composed of these many figures.This book is a thing of beauty, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
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  • Book Mark
    January 1, 1970
    I get Maria Popova's brain pickings mailer and it is nicely done, to say the least. Having said that, the articles are largely to do with philosophy - works of literature and the humanities, can be sometimes long and the hyperlinks they spawn mean a.vague dissatisfaction for the completetist. Ergo, I have been saving them in the hope that I might be able to summon the fortitude to read them all someday. Ironically enough, I was introduced to Popova by a person I corresponded with online who told I get Maria Popova's brain pickings mailer and it is nicely done, to say the least. Having said that, the articles are largely to do with philosophy - works of literature and the humanities, can be sometimes long and the hyperlinks they spawn mean a.vague dissatisfaction for the completetist. Ergo, I have been saving them in the hope that I might be able to summon the fortitude to read them all someday. Ironically enough, I was introduced to Popova by a person I corresponded with online who told me things about herself that belied any interest in the humanities and her traits check every box on that questionnaire to determine if you are a narcissist. I don't know if she truly reads it herself or if she does, I wonder what she makes of any of it! But as.a result, I started reading about narcs on quora, and I find that entire sordid universe they occupy fascinating!I have no interest in reading about the romantic escapades and the private lives of historical figures (largely scientists), although if I was doing a particular person's bio then I might be able to summon the enthusiasm. There are way too many characters and without knowing the history, it was too much for me, all at once, to keep up with. However, I can see how this might be fun with a computer close at hand, and you could then wiki up the necessary research and familiarise yourself with what to my mind is trivia, at best. For the longest time, as I did the audiobook, I was trying to figure what the book was all about, or the point it was trying to make. It starts off great, I honestly thought it would be a sort of 'best of" brain pickings compendium. But, it isn't. Maybe I will just go back to her columns and read me some of those until I am ready to take this on again on paper. Although the audio book has a very good reader - I tried to search for the name but the penguin random house site didn't have it - it just did not work for me. Way too distracting! I have heard some 9 or 10 chapters for now. I hope to come back to it some day and do the rest later.
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  • Nperlong
    January 1, 1970
    I was excited for this book for so long because I love the authors blog. I really wanted to like this book, but I just gave up about 30 percent of the way in. It is extremely hard to follow and quite a chore to read because there are too many people introduced in seemingly disparate threads. I would often end a chapter bewildered and out of energy.I am giving this 2 stars instead of 1 because the research that went into this book is inspiring by itself.
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  • Joanne Blodgett
    January 1, 1970
    The best and most beautifully written book I've read in years. The bibliography gives me a booklist for the rest of my life, and Popova is amazing at making connections with precise and lyrical language.
  • Jen
    January 1, 1970
    Truly an amazing work. Popova's intellect is dizzying and a joy to read. Wholeheartedly recommend!
  • Josh
    January 1, 1970
    Beautiful journey into the life of the mind.
  • Gretchen Lida
    January 1, 1970
    This book= magic.
  • Pat Carroll
    January 1, 1970
    Meh. An excellent curator and blogger, Maria Popova here stretches the nature of narrative beyond use. There are simply too many peripheral idea and sidebar points in the story she wants to tell.
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