Maria Popova: A Dear Mentor I’ve Never Met

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.


Scholar, would you tell me a story?

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.