Maria Popova is a thought-hero of mine. She’s not an idol—rather, at my best thinking self I try to be her apprentice. No, we’ve never met. And yet, as is manifest in her writing on years of written correspondence between women who admire each other intimately, we can seem to ourselves to know a soul through its verbal emanations.
Popova is a rigorous curator of poetic-scientific feeling. Her teenaged (13 years of consistency!) weekly newsletter is timeless—she puts the date only in the URL, in case you need it for citation—not in a way that endorses the shill of universal humanity, but because its story-threads accrete into a solid world. Her implicit theory of knowing prizes personal experience while including our full intellectual, vicarious, imagined worlds therein, avoiding the smallness of the preciousness and pathos that she does not devalue. She values grand narratives and builds them bottom-up, dialectically and dialogically insisting that the cosmos, and ours, are a rich tapestry of glittering details and a sweeping structure that is true and beautiful scribed in ideal forms. If I may, she’s a Platonist imagist and an Aristotelian observer, availing herself of the logical tools of both.
Her worldviews, through my kaleidoscope, give me confidence that our brilliant hearts can perceive the gestalt, a solid whole with these threads as atoms. Our consciousness can expand to simultaneously comprehend the old woman and the young one in that classic demonstration of shifted perception: we are not limited to watching the shifting tensions in pretty partner dances between micro and macro.
Popova’s poetics of bodies and evidence do have arguments, contra Jorie Graham’s idea that “great poems have so few arguments in them.” But she agrees with Graham in not “want[ing] to make the reader ‘agree’.” Her magnum opus (thus far), Figuring, is a smart book and a full one, loving both structure and flow, vivid and associational while taking real things as its raw material—if we understand feelings, mysteries and phenomena all as reality. Above all it holds all these poles as glimpses of a whole, fading and emerging by tricks of the light, in a decidedly expansive and expanding geometry.
The author’s voice is rarely present in first person in either Popova’s newsletters or Figuring, but only she could have written her work. And so she provides us a model of clear observation by the light of the heart and me with the courage to speak words like “heart” without a reflexive academic flinch. As a curator she is no mere compiler, but gets idea-full figures to play with each other through what feels like a light touch of intuition but I know to be thorough investigation. She runs towards intensity and in that process guides me to a practice of doing so, despite my fears, despite the defense of “rigor!” that we academics so often throw up against the intrusion of abiding care.
BrainPickings is an email newsletter you will actually open every week. Figuring is a bigger and differently rich attention commitment. I’m going to be a terrible curator here and point you to the whole damn archive to find what resonates, with votes in for mentions of Oliver Sacks, Carl Sagan, Johannes Kepler, Emily Dickinson, and the wisdom of trees. Each article ends with a “complement with” section that is Popova curating herself: trust her to guide you, as I do.
I moved this week and brought only two boxes of books with me! For a word-hoard-er, that‘s an accomplishment. Especially when around half the books were ones I really do reference and need with me as I study for my oral exams.
The other box was almost exclusively volumes of English-language poetry, my native language (English, that is—if only poetry!) These are the bodies of work that I need to incorporate into my inklings on paper’s back: it’s only poetry I rarely read in ebook form.
There’s no fetishism of the smell of the paper or the crack of the page-turn there. It’s simply a different form of reading than I mostly do now: for feeling in over figuring out the language.
That I haven’t dived into any of the books in that second box in months, mostly years, shows not disenchantment with poetry, but a separation from the plain enchantment I felt when I first met these poets’ pages, that drove me to require their volume in my space. I can prove it (I say): they have survived a dozen purges of those shelves over seven years. Nor is their presence a plan or sign of aspiration: like friends you only talk to once a year but have not picked up the designation “former,” these poets are familiar, familiars, whose work I do not devour partly because I trust it will be there for the long haul, even at the end. There is a longing there of a rare sort for me: a stable and sustained one. There is a bond with even the yet-unread poems that only I can sever—a consolation, in years strewn with sudden loss and grief.
This week I mulled over. Harryette Mullen’s “Fancy Cortex” (read it in full here). I commend the whole volume it is contained in, Sleeping with the dictionary, into the hands of any lovers of sounds and play—and this one exemplifies the collection.
We talk in any “Intro to the History of English” about short, sharp Anglo-Saxon words (though I would replace that term now with Early English) versus the bourgeois signifiers of too-aristocratic Latin (and French and Greek). In “Fancy Cortex,” Mullen enjambs them seamlessly, without ostentation. The contrasting sounds of these two word-sources map onto characters: the “I” has a plain brain before the crush’s eponymous fancy cortex. No hitting us over the head with a gulf of difference: a one- versus two-syllable couplet. Sound, while shimmering, is only sequel to sense, which does not yield to aural ecstasy: the brain anatomy, the evolutionary processes, the optical are all straight science, or at least the tangle of language is woven—a little wildly, but not confused. Or at least with the concepts set straighter than lots of science journalism, and more generous, joyful, inviting, exhibitionist.
The I’s hypothetical as ifs are wink-wink suggestions of truth, not the truly tortuous counterfactuals of Latin syntax. They drive us forward, don’t hang us up. And the mapping I asserted, of simple language to modest status, is not fixed: sometimes tizzy-like conglomerations of phrases are the speaker’s, whose inquisitive iris of [her] galaxy-orbiting telescope doesn’t penetrate as far or keenly as the beloved’s vision. These two characters are definitely on the word-dance floor, juxtapositioning in a tumble of identities.
The poem’s cool-down is both cosmic (featuring a divergent universification and a microcosm) and possibly intimate: maybe the speaker’s crush will “fancy the microcosm of [her] prosaic mind.” It’s all in the cards, especially when this supposedly prosaic poet can coin verses that universify.
“You’re a polyglot? Oh! How many languages are you fluent in?!”
I suspect most who are called or call themselves polyglots usually get this response when they reveal themselves. I certainly do, and it drives me crazy.
It reflects a certain instrumental view of languages as objects or tools to accumulate. Polyglots “pick up” languages quickly and after they “master” a given language, they are justified in including it in their count of tools (and it stays in the box forever, even if it gets buried under a heap of dust). The languages are likely somewhat interchangeable for someone who asks this question, who is more interested in number than character and quality. Being a polyglot, in my experience in the United States, is considered a feat of at least slight genius, a little odd but noteworthy nonetheless—a bit like being a math whiz or winner of the pi recitation contest.
I often consider languages as instruments too: musical instruments. We ask musicians what they play, not how many instruments or (usually) how well. While there is still a strong cultural narrative of child prodigies in piano or violin, when someone tells us they play piano, we understand at some level that they must practice a lot and that they started at the beginning. We wonder how they feel about their instrument, how long they’ve played, when they started and why. We ask about the sort of music they most like to play—jazz, classical, folk, pop?–where they’ve played and for whom. If we are awed at a performance of theirs we probably lean in and not away: we might share how it moved us, ask about a part that particularly struck us, or praise them for the creation they’ve gifted the audience through their mastery. We want to know about their upcoming concerts—which we know will be totally different, even if they are still just playing that same instrument! While we might widen our eyes at someone who plays five instruments, we don’t fret over how many instruments you have to play to attain the coveted status of “real musician.”
In short, we understand that being a musician can be central to someone’s identity at any age or level. We know that mastery builds, that musicianship is a lifelong pursuit, that mastery is a craftsman’s label and not what we win when we beat the big boss. We want musicians’ stories, assuming each is unique.
When I’ve asked musicians I meet about what they play, I’ve heard:
Clarinet in high school—starting out I wanted to play sax just like everyone else, but all the saxophones were taken when I got to pick my instrument out of the closet in my public middle school
I love accompanying choirs: singing is way more challenging than people think, and it’s so rewarding to see the process the singers go through, be there at every rehearsal, watch them develop as people
Well, okay, I don’t know if I would say musician… I mean, we all played recorder in third grade, right? But actually I went further with it! After a year or two I was playing Mozart and folk songs, not that “Hot Cross Buns” stuff you start off with
I can play chopsticks, haha. No, piano wasn’t for me. But I’ve gotten back into it recently, now that I have kids… I want to expose them to music, you know, and show them what music could do for them. I’m not perfect, but when they were little my kids loved my singing to them at night…I think they still do, secretly.
In my own life, after getting stuck with clarinet and not sax in the band-room-closet scramble, the highlight of eighth grade was a Bach duet I got to play with a flautist classmate at the end-of-year concert. Clarinet brings back memories of watching the sunset from a 4th floor window at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, the crappy pizza place we piled into after concerts, and wanting to disappear whenever my teacher nagged his son, who was often at our lessons, to get his homework done just like I always did. Piano brings memories of listening: my parents both played, though I did so only under duress. I remember Joe Hill, John Henry, Beethoven, Schumann, the streets of Laredo. I remember noodling around on the piano in a back hallway where my a cappella group practiced in high school, and how when I (an atheist Jew) listened in chapel, I wasn’t always sure if it was the music I was falling in love with or the musician—or maybe sprouting some new notion of G-d.
I only got beyond the basics in choral singing, but I have fun with music. I know the struggles of doing two different things with your hands (mostly because that’s when I started giving up) and can feel my way to a chord on piano for tuning and warmup. I play scales to relax and I know that when I tackled Byrd motets and four-part polyphony, I was as much tackling my emotional life. I know how the same problems came up in my piano playing as in life and how it is to get called out on that, to hear “slow down, play through the doubt, and stop trying to be perfect” and take that home with me.
Languages, at least for this polyglot, are instruments in exactly this sense. I have a relationship with each of mine, a history, different loves and joys and persistent demons in each. If I am a collector, it’s not of badges, but as someone who relishes the make of a thing, its character and its long lineage of handlers. It’s about each coin, not the sum total. With Spanish I think of words flying on the yellow school bus as a kid, my delight at helping my best friend in high school with her AP homework even though I’d never taken a class, and how much I learned about what my students really thought before they realized I spoke Spanish. In Latin the author I turn to for comfort most often is still Saint Augustine, the first one I ever read extended passages from, and I felt a sort of mastery not when I could tackle the canon, but when I kept thinking in Latin even when my feelings tackled me.
These are the stories that I tell about knowing different languages when I get a chance. These are the ones that make me feel seen and heard, like the asker really cares about her question and its answer. When I have the chance to share about my languages I want to share love and fun, not curt numbers that distance us. On the off chance there’s still that awkward, unmerited awe, I want it to be the encouraging sort of awesome, the one that lets us continue the conversation.
So next time you meet a polyglot, ask for their story, not their stats.
I thrived in traditional language classes in school—so I thought, so my grades and all the adults around me insisted. I also sensed and said, from pre-K to now, “I hate school AND I love learning.” I’ve always had a keen love of hyperbole and stubbornly simple declarations–but there’s a whole lot of real science and personal history wrapped up in this strong, simplistic statement.
All the World at Home on the 7 Train
I grew up in New York City, born and raised. In my four-year-old transportation phase, even as a then-monolingual English speaker, I took in with all my senses Italian, English, German, Mandarin, Cantonese, Arabic, Hindi, Bengali, (Modern) Greek… all audible throughout the day on the MTA’s 7 line deep to Queens (which has the highest density of languages on Earth, each of which you can learn about in this interactive map).
My mundane little trips were a local, public, immersive, experiential education that gave me glimpses of linguistic communities all over the world and oodles of earfuls of the languages themselves.
Yes, that exposure was certainly surface. And yes, one could fairly argue (I have worried about it myself) that this was mere cultural tourism: a steep and slippery slope down to understanding too little of too much.
But I find that it ingrained in my roots not any one culture or language, but the epic, embodied idea that human language, culture, our selves, and the worlds we build and inhabit are all linked, woven, knotted together, utterly inseparably,to form a mosaic whole–one we can still examine by parts if we need to, whether by prism or kaleidoscope.
Singing and The Sound of Silence
Where and when did I internalize my most fluent second language, Spanish? It wasn’t (just) on the 7 train. It’s hard to pinpoint “everywhere” on a city map. It’s true but not useful to respond, “always–the thick city air throbbed and hummed with the tongue.”
It is true and important to my polyglot story to add that those sounds, that music I breathed in, I breathed it out too. I was my most grounded, creative, connected, and joyful–sometimes loudly, sometimes with a fierce, sustained quietness–singing in choirs, which I have done regularly since age 7. I have sung in languages ranging from English to Hungarian through Latin, Hebrew, Yiddish, Italian, French, Russian, and German. In fact, my very first encounter with Latin, as a secular Jew, was in classical choral settings of the Catholic mass I sang in as an 18 year old with orchestra. In a pattern that would repeat itself, I knew and loved Latin’s sounds and was drawn to its sacredness even not knowing what it meant–neither the message of the words, then, nor their gentle but insistent tug on me, towards something like what I understand faith to mean to the faithful. Sanctuary I grasped even then, singing in the church’s: I needed it, was consoled in my own storms of life pronouncing Sweet Honey in the Rock’s haunting sounds of consolation.
I loved the puzzle, structure and challenge of the languages as I encountered them in choir too, presaging more logical language adventures to come. We learn the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to be able to enunciate properly even singing in a language we don’t speak. The IPA was even better than Unicode or ASCII, a wondrous script that let me internalize and precisely produce the lilt and cadence of languages whose worlds I did not yet have rational, meaningful access to. Sometimes, though, then and still now, a language is the most significant and sensible to me when I have no access to its messages. The poetry becomes more prose, the mystery resolves itself a little too clearly, after some patient study of the literal meaning. As I walk around flaunting my command of a word whose meaning I already “know,” the real wonder and singularity of my first encounter with it only comes to mind in particularly meditative moments. Most times, I am prone to confuse mastery of craft with command of a subject. Something gained, something forgotten–verloren.
School Days: Thinking Harder is Better (…Right?)
As I entered middle and especially high school, I lost bigger swaths of my language, of that varied rock-out, wild-joy, push-through, hold-on, step-back, breathe, rest… soundtrack. I dropped concert band after sophomore year (I had played clarinet) to double up on math and enter a research competition that I thought I loved and in a real sense did. I didn’t sing in the school choir (though meinLieblingshobby was an a cappella group, a student-run home-at-school which I attended religiously).
I chose Robotics Team over the sci-fi and fantasy games and literary magazines, because clearly I was “really” a math guy, or clearly it was more serious and taxing, and thus more worthwhile (I went to a specialized magnet high school known for math). I was really smart, so they told me–some threw the word “genius” my way–and so I could and thus should be doing hard things.
(At least, so I heard what they were telling me: the wiser ones, both peers and teacher-mentors, the foretellers of my most fulfilled life meant something different. They spoke it in the most fully human of languages I did not yet comprehend, the joint language of heart, head, study, and a lot of living in this, our world).
Thinking Hard Can Help You Think Well (…Sometimes.)
But not all who wander are truly lost. The path of the geometer may be no royal road, but (as I’ve lived) one can journey to math in awe (or to any beautifully powerful corner of our earth), a little too hurried, too green for the quest; can love and hurt in its majestic halls for a long while; and then find that its thought-world and languages still mesh lovingly with one’s new, familiarly human ones.
Thus I passed through math and stepped away from it forged more finely. I moved on but have kept it as a companion for the road–even, now, have it over like an old friend for a now-multilingual encounter into the night.
Wir machen weiter. Continuamos.Progressi sumus. Qualcosa è successo, lo che sia.
I chose Italian in middle school to make friends in the surrounding Italian-American neighborhood of Bensonhurst, a few miles and a whole world away from home–and because it seemed harder than Spanish, which was overly familiar, too close to home. I later sang in Italian knowing not just its lilt but some of its message in voice lessons in college whose memory I still cherish; studied it to advanced overall proficiency with the more creative, personally effective methods I crafted for myself after I immersed in Latin in isolated mountain-town Italy; and now use it to read with joy and fascination both Dante the linguist and Galileo the emotive poet in my PhD research, whose core is actually Latin.
I chose Mandarin Chinese in high school because it seemed fascinatingly hard and worthy of deep study (I was totally right–with wrong-headed teenaged motivations). My parents worried about me taking a language at all: maybe I would fail the speaking test in the exit exam because of my speech impediment–but I was adamant.
Chinese is one of the few languages I have studied in formal classes and one of the only ones I have studied hard and almost completely lost, though I surprise myself once in a while by recognizing the words on storefront shops in heavily Cantonese-speaking Chinatowns. Chinese was an excellent choice: it was easier for me than other languages with my particular speech impediment, since mixing s and sh sounds, a dis-ability in English and an occasion for the arching of eyebrows in Italian, can be a simple matter of regional differences in Chinese.
In class I loved the grammar, structure, writing system, the creative calligraphy with strict rules for stroke order. I loved learning directional adverbs, memorizing radicals, analyzing sentences, and the comparative ease of learning verbs, which I now understand is true of many analytic languages. I got bored when we elite AP students were finally granted access to Chinese literature and culture. (I, now a polyglot aspiring historian of science, thought history was just a collection of old facts, mere souvenir collecting, not yet knowing that souvenir is “to remember” in its original French, not to gather tourist trinkets). While I haven’t touched Chinese in a few years, I would use my skills in analyzing language and attraction to the ancient and classical later on to study Latin, taught quite mathematically, and classical Arabic, which beautifully binds structure and sanctity, laws and contemplative philosophy, revelation and study.
We End Where We Began, But Different
“Omnia tempus habent et suis spatiis transeunt universa sub caelo.”
(Ecclesiastes 3:1, Latin Vulgate Bible)
“To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven.”
(ibid., King James Version)
I stretched myself with organic chemistry and AP History courses in high school, took two acting courses, loaded up on English electives, and wrote creatively all along in a STEM magnet school whose second, secret treasure was and is its English department. I learned that I knew Spanish, somehow, when I could help my best friend in robotics and physics–also a linguistics, constructed languages (conlang) and Esperanto geek–with her AP Spanish class.
I finished a math major and applied math to physics in my master’s work, alongside intensive choir and slam poetry commitments and more classes in the English department than most majors). In the filler summer between graduation and my first full-time teaching gig teaching both science and world literature (but not math), I found linguistics through grammar-based Latin. Over the next few years, I added Ancient Greek and relearned Latin as a living language (introduced to that world by the student president of my college choir). The spoken fluency I now enjoy makes possible my doctoral work on creative, multilingual communities of knowledge-makers in the Early Modern world, focused on Kepler and other mathematical astronomers writing in Latin (both technical scholarship and popular science fiction). These Latin writers (and maybe speakers?) also wrote to home and homeland in various vernacular languages, like Spanish, Italian and German. Without revivifying the Latin language for myself, I would not be able to study these particular dead as I do.
All of this background–my scattered life’s history thus far formed into words–all this contradiction, irony, love, confusion, conflict, and clarity, got me exactly where I am–fulfilled and eager for what’s next–in my life and my professional vocations. I was a polyglot, a writer, a creative all along, I think. I didn’t notice the polyglottery at all, felt rather ashamed of taking time from serious subjects for the fierce and unexpected joy of my writing craft, and noticed my creativity mostly in how I proved new theorems in mathematics (or, as I would now express it, defined and described an unexplored corner of a simulated world). I am still a mathematician–a lover of critique and a subject of criticism, someone who looks at a sunset and notes in memory all the following at once: a photograph, emotional power, existential beauty, and the physical explanation for the color gradients.
Where to? We’ll make this way together!
I’m so excited and grateful to share our multilingual worlds and form our unique polyglot identities-–because I do believe polyglottery can be a fundamental identity, not just a collection of everyday tools, mysterious feats of intellect, or conversation starters for geeks at parties.
Some of my most memorable, and thus powerful, learning experiences in languages and humanities have come from imitation. In a college literature class on the English Metaphysical Poets, I had the opportunity to write a poem imitating John Donne’s “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” and reflect on my process, defending how it was an imitation, instead of writing a standard seminar research paper. That was nine years ago, and I still feel a deeper connection to Donne’s work and cosmology than to most other poets I’ve studied. I also understand his style better.
Imitate more than innovate to learn your craft
There is a long history of imitation denigrated as “mere,” uncreative, derivative. Even if we recognize that poets’, painters’ and composers’ juvenalia often consist in imitations—and thus that imitation is part of learning one’s craft—they are considered juvenile: immature, less worthy of our study. Mere preludes to creation.
There is perhaps equally long history of imitation as a core part of humanistic education, whether to learn a language itself (say, Latin) or the style of its literary authors. Jacobus Pontanus, a Renaissance humanist who wrote *colloquia—*mostly fictional dialogues between students—to aid advanced students in learning Latin, is one among many, from antiquity through his own time, to suggest taking well-known fables from Aesop or a letter from some famous author and imitating it as closely as possible, sometimes following set rules of composition, occasionally taking more liberties. Expansion and summary, transposition into a new context, paraphrases, changing genres, adding meter to prose or turning verse into dialogue—all of these were common exercises designed not only to exercise the language itself, but also for students to achieve an intimate knowledge of what and how excellent ancient and contemporary writers thought.
Diligent teachers often take up the argument or the whole content of some learned man’s letter and propose it to their students, then, by comparing their students’ letters with the original, teach them what one should do and how one should write.
Jacobus Pontanus, Progymnasma 98
Pontanus even suggests keeping the theme and content of the original exactly the same, changing only words and form: treating hackneyed themes frees one from the need to make novel arguments and wrestle with style all at once. I have found this to be true in my own imitations: when I wrote a pseudo-Platonic dialogue in Ancient Greek, I tried—with less success than I’d imagined—to riff off and add a modern spin Plato’s ideas on pedagogy while I was imitating his style to better my Greek. I’m proud of the result, but I might have refined my sense of Greek prose style more had I stuck to a worn-out theme.
Fuel your originality with what you love
It’s not only the Latinists who accept and even encourage imitation—though, in modern times, often as a beginning phase that will naturally fade. In her essay “Oliver Sacks on the Three Essential Elements of Creativity,” Maria Popova, after quoting Susan Sontag on voracious reading feeding writing and neurologist Oliver Sacks on imitation as apprenticeship, summarizes the process of artistic becoming:
We learn our own minds by finding out what we love; these models integrate into a sensibility; out of that sensibility arises the initial impulse for imitation, which, aided by the gradual acquisition of technical mastery, eventually ripens into original creation.
Maria Popova of BrainPickings
John McPhee, a most dedicated craftsman-writer-researcher and, in his essay collection “Draft No. 4” a generous advice-giver, recalls his exchange with a young writer anxious about being original:
She said, “My style is always that of what I am reading at the time—or overwhelmingly self-conscious and strained.” I said, “How unfortunate that would be if you were fifty-four. At twenty-three, it is not only natural; it is important. The developing writer reacts to excellence as it is discovered—wherever and whenever—and of course does some imitating (unavoidably) in the process of drawing from the admired fabric things to make one’s own. Rapidly, the components of imitation fade. What remains is a new element in your own voice, which is not in any way an imitation. Your manner as a writer takes form in this way, a fragment at a time.
John McPhee, “Draft No. 4,” p. 161
Grounding ourselves in others is the best way to our own way. And it’s a natural, even necessary, part of our creativity (modern neuroscientists and psychologists agree).
Follow echoes to your creative self—and follow yourself
Though imitation is important even for experts, we might worry, like McPhee’s young writer did, that we won’t grow beyond it. But centuries of artists’ practice, of the “Mature Works” that follow juvenalia in anthologies, suggests that we will and they do. I treasure the Collected Works editions of poets, where one sees the writer’s lifelong creative arc(s) and shifting preoccupations. Best of all, these authors seem to learn to follow themselves and to trust the ground ahead. This self-trust is hard won, and never complete (and shouldn’t be): just enough to keep on going. Recombination within and expansion of our web of ideas is part of creativity at any stage, but it seems to me something to look forward to more as I continue creating. As McPhee reflects in another essay in his collection,
New pieces can shoot up from other pieces, pursuing connections that run through the ground like rhizomes. Set one of these progressions in motion, and it will skein out in surprising ways, finally ending in some unexpected place.
John McPhee, “Draft No. 4,” p. 11
It’s not, then, so much about growing out—of imitation or anything else—but of growing up to our hopes, growing into ourselves, growing through each other.
“Proportions alternate between infinitesimal and astronomical. The signals are infinitesimal. The sources are astronomical. The sensitivities are infinitesimal. The rewards are astronomical. The human ambition to understand the universe is merely epic, and astronomical trumps epic.” – Janna Levin in Black Hole Blues
My father, the wonder-full layman, and I, the one who broke up with professional science, read the same pop science books. We know that where they make bald declarations they are wrong in significant ways. From the ones who seem to have their noses thrust up skywards as they declaim we keep a correspondingly disdainful distance. Stephen Pinker is too confident. Malcolm Gladwell pushes too many Unified Theories. The collector and commentator E.O. Wilson of The Diversity of Life is far more compelling than the later E.O. Wilson grasping after ultimate meaning in Consilience. I find Wilson on social insects more beautiful than Wilson on beauty—in his care, his wonder, his generosity towards both subject and audience.
All the authors I’ve cited put forth simple, big ideas. Simplified, too. They leave out most footnotes or make them endnotes, as I believe they should. As best I can figure it, the ones that inspire wonder and midnight conversation differ from the ones we condemn as condescending and simple-minded mainly in whether they are inviting us to sit in front of or next to them.
The expositors who profess in their books like they do in the lecture hall are hit-or-miss. If we don’t buy or even are simply skeptical of their One Big Idea, the whole reading experience falls on the rocks. Knowing that 10,000 practice hours does not necessarily make one an expert knocks a whole subgenre of performance psych books out of consideration for what to spend my learning time on. I am so wary of the it is so because prehistoric man… just-so stories that I missed out on gems from behavioral ecology like Joan Roughgarten’s Evolution’s Rainbow for years out of fear of proximity to pop evolutionary psychology. The authorial voice in these works is strong, ruining even meaty evidence and anecdote with tiresome insistence on the Big Idea. It doesn’t matter how much good there is to be found in these books (often very much!): I come away resentful, my curiosity dulled. The author didn’t really trust me to follow along, so I don’t follow up. I imagine that he (often he) resents staying for the Q&A after he has given a talk.
The writers whose words ripple through me long after my first reading have strong authorial voices too. But they modulate them for the audience in the room. Janna Levin, Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Atul Gawande, Maria Popova—they invite me to wonder with them, rich in offerings while declining the high throne of authority. Reading their work, it is simplified, too, but we both trust the other knows that. We are vulnerable with each other: we don’t know, we say, and we want so badly to know, knowing we can only ever do so in part. We are no nihilists: we treasure little fragments of knowing. Like the proportions Levin sings, we are small and great, pieces and wholes. Wandering the world of astronomy we are astronomical: that is to say, we dance between the infinite and the infinitesimal and see them together dialectically in freeze-frame. As a reader I am not frozen in the spotlight of the author’s brilliance—rather, the author has a pocket flashlight to illuminate the next few steps, or invites me in as observer when she gets her few hours a year on the radio telescope, or maybe just knows where there’s a working lighthouse beaming onto this thought world I am just meeting.
So, to those, like me, who fret over telling simple stories of their nuanced worlds: show us more than telling us. Give us a map of your terrain and let us loose, but be there when called upon—whether with notes, correctives, countermelodies from other voices, or a URL that grants access to more context and sources. As your reader, I promise that I know you are telling one simple story of many not yet told. I know you have woven this one with care, oh, so much care. But I do not grieve as you do at all the untold stories, because I trust that the path you charted through them for me will lead to others—other stories, other tellers from your same world. I thank you for the courage you’ve shown in inviting simply. I will invite others in turn—my dad, first of all—and slowly, in wonder, I will learn to know better. Only open the door: we have been waiting. We who do not want perfect—who would be insulted if you claimed it. We ask, simply, for a thread of connection into your world of meaning. For a voice to end the silence, even if it trembles.