Figure (verb): to calculate or work out (an amount or value) arithmetically
What is the true measure of a meaningful life? Is it prestige? It is love? In Figuring, author and cultural critic Maria Popova seeks to answer this complex question by exploring the interconnected lives of history’s most celebrated writers, artists, and scientists. While men such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Darwin, and Johannes Kepler make appearances, the narrative is primarily focused on women – starting with Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science, and ending with the beloved biologist Rachel Carson, who catalyzed the environmental movement. Written in near-poetic prose reminiscent of Rebecca Solnit, Popova’s debut book is a nexus spanning four centuries and connecting the dots between women who defied cultural norms to leave their mark on the world. While the likes of Margaret Fuller, Emily Dickinson, and Harriet Hosmer are staples in art and literature classrooms around the world, this book breathes life into the personal anecdotes you won’t find in textbooks, humanizing historical figures we laud as “great” or even “genius.” The book elicits a somewhat somber overtone in telling these women’s stories, which often include unconventional relationships and unimaginable heartbreak. Popova’s soulful excavation into their lives demonstrates how personal experiences often shape not only the way we perceive the world, but also the way we contribute to it.
My interpretation of Figuring is difficult for me to articulate, partly because it’s impossible to summarize 545 pages of eloquently-written insight, and partly because I am still wrapping my head around its meaning. The book is not a quick or easy ready, and as I finished the final pages this weekend, I initially found myself filled with a despondent sense of emptiness. At first glance, the final chapter seemed to imply that no matter what impact we make on the world, on society, or even individuals that we love, our stories are a mere drop in the ocean. The universe existed long before we did and will continue to exist long after we are gone. So why does living a fulfilling life even matter?
But then I started to think about the general theme of interconnectedness and realized that while the universe is both inconceivably random and inconceivably infinite, there is a thread that ties the tapestry of it all together, and that thread is beauty. Throughout history, the interconnected disciplines of art and science has helped humans make sense of chance, create an illusion of permanence, and ultimately search for meaning. Furthermore, you could argue that all prominent figures in science were driven by an awestruck appreciation for the beauty of our natural world – from Maria Mitchell’s youthful fascination for the night sky to Rachel Carson’s infatuation with the Maine coast. And while I sat reading this book on a California beach 3,000 miles and more than five decades away from Carson’s existence, I realized that our lives – like all lives – are inextricably and beautifully linked. Perhaps it is this interplay of all human lives that give us meaning in an endlessly random universe, because “nothing once created ever fully leaves us.”
I applaud Maria Popova for following in these women’s footsteps by using literature to expand our understanding of the universe. I highly recommend this book, as well as her blog of the same format, Brainpickings.
“Comets–icy clumps of soot and stardust shed by the eternal as emissaries of the ephemeral–serve as anchors of periodicity by which to moor ourselves to the uncertain flow of existence and space out segments of being along the fleeting interlude of life…As birthdays temper the delicious illusion of our own inevitability with the hard fact that we were once inconceivable, so comets remind us that the life of the universe operates on cycles independent of and far grander than our own lifespans.”