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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 have 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.
About the Author
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's 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.
"[A] passionate and erudite pursuit of truth and beauty"—Booklist [starred]
"An intricate tapestry in which the lives of these women, and dozens of other scientific and literary figures, are woven together through threads of connection across four centuries. . . In Figuring, we are thrust into a waltz of exquisitely honed minds — most of them belonging to women, many of them sexually queer — all insisting on living to their fullest.”—The Washington Post
"Fans of polymath Maria Popova’s popular website, Brain Pickings, will find themselves right at home in Figuring, her audacious new work of intellectual history that focuses on the lives of a coterie of brilliant women. . . Figuring invites the reader to engage with complex ideas and challenging personalities, unearthing a wealth of material for further reflection along the way."—BookPage [starred]
“Fascinating. . . Piecing together human truths and the remarkable details of these lives well-lived into an extraordinary mosaic of human existence, Figuring reveals our timeless interconnectedness, and the inevitable, although improbable, intersections of our lives in the vastness of the universe.”—BookTrib
“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.” —Kirkus Reviews [starred]