Figuring, by Maria Popova

For the last few weeks I have been savouring Maria Popova’s Figuring — a bright comet of a book, spiralling through intersecting orbits of lives, loves, and letters.

From the opening sentence — a page-long masterpiece of cosmic and personal images — I knew that I would be transformed by these pages. Popova reaches out into the eternal depths of the universe, and finds there abundant refractions of the fleeting depths of the human soul.

Popova juxtaposes the lives of her subjects in a way that is at times disorienting. There is order here, but it is not the imposed order of human thought. It is rather the order of nature: her stories grow forward through time while also reaching out in tangled vines and loops, revealing the influences and connections — the fractal echoes — that we might ignore in our more traditional addictions to straight lines and oversimplified causes and effects.

If there is a rainbowing motif here, it is the motif of connection — of the way that each moment is a constellation of points of light, how every self is a tree planted deep within the soil of the past, both cosmic and individual.

From inspiration to genius to grief, Popova reveals the beauty inherent in humanity’s striving for meaning.

Her sentences are often layered poems in themselves. She writes: “In lives like Emily Dickinson’s — lives of tessellated emotional complexity encrypted in a private lexicon, throbbing with intensity bloodlet in symbol and metaphor — the inevitable blind spots of biography become eclipses.” That sentence is a miniature model of the book as a whole: It is a self-aware exploration of the inner lives of people, filtered through the lenses of language and stars.

On death, Popova gives us magnificent clarity: “On a planet orbiting one of the two hundred billion stars in [the galaxy], a thinking, feeling creature was facing the fate of all matter — the atoms that had given it life were about to retreat into stardust.” From Kepler to Dickenson to Carson, Popova guides us to see them as passionate souls, but also as atoms briefly coalescing in time and space to move the human spirit forward.

Toward the end of the book, Popova presents an excerpt from a letter from Rachel Carson to her soulmate, Dorothy Freeman, in which Carson reflects on writing The Edge of the Sea:

“If I’m satisfied with this [writing] now, it’s at least partly due to an evening of Beethoven last night. Some little bits of his marvellous creativeness seems to seep through into my brain cells when I listen to him.”

I might say the same about Popova herself. Reading her, with her branches of interconnected stories, and her sensitive and melodious phrases, elevates our minds so that we become able to transmute the ordinary moments of life into notes in the eternal symphony. This is a book to read in the way we listen to Beethoven, or savour a sunset. It will awe you. It will inspire you. It will give you a new perspective from which to peer at the web of human achievement — and at the meaning of your own fragile time as a conscious constellation of stardust. 

Jason Defoe, 20 May 2019

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