Home Lifestyle Maria Popova’s vivid life in the margins

Maria Popova’s vivid life in the margins

by DIGITAL TIMES
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For 17 years, Maria Popova has kept an online literary journal of sorts, a catalog of what she’s been reading, contemplating and grappling with across multiple disciplines: literature, science, art, philosophy, poetry, and what she has called “various other tentacles of human thought and feeling.”

She started her site, The Marginalian, under a different name — you may remember it as Brain Pickings, a name that she vigorously distances herself from today — as an email to a few friends and colleagues, a personal record of reckoning with her own search for meaning.

“The fundamental mystery of the universe, these large abstract impersonal forces that are the reason we exist are profoundly interesting and full of wonder,” says Popova, who is this week’s guest on “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast.” “How do we manufacture this feeling of meaning given we are the product of completely austere impersonal forces and we are transient and we will die and return our borrowed stardust to this cold universe that made it. And in the meantime, how do we make meaning?“

Today, The Marginalian consists of hundreds of thousands of entries cross-linking ideas and connecting metaphysical dots. You might open it to find a riff on Hannah Arendt on love and how to live with the fear of loss, or an essay by e.e. cummings on having the courage to be yourself, or an introduction to a 19th century seamstress who pioneered the aquarium and laid the groundwork for the study of octopus intelligence.

It is a fundamentally personal project, a map of one woman’s quest to understand this weird experience called life. And yet over the years, it has proven to have a universal appeal attracting millions of readers from all over the world who take comfort or pick up wisdom from her lyrical close readings.

In addition to the Marginalian, Popova has written or edited a number of books including 2018’s “A Velocity of Being,” 2019’s “Figuring,” and the forthcoming “Universe In Verse,” among others, all with more or less the same through line: “We’ve got to have some tenderness and some compassion for consciousness, which is all we have,” she says.

Here, we discuss the first 17 years of The Marginalian, how it’s evolved, how she works, growing up in Bulgaria and coming to America at 19, and, like her site, a little bit of everything.

The following is a transcript of our conversation, which airs as an episode of “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast,” edited for clarity. Listen in the player above or wherever you get your podcasts.

We are talking today at 1 p.m. What has your day been like up to this point? What have you read? I’m assuming this has been an interruption in your workflow. What has your day been like so far?
I am pathologically reliant on routine, so my day today is pretty much like all my days. I woke up, I meditated, facing at this time of year a SAD lamp to get some photons in there. Then I worked out. And while I was working out, I was reading, in this case a wonderful book called “The Paradise Notebooks,” which is a collaboration between a geographer and a poet about a collection of their diaries, essays, and poems about some time that they spent in the Sierra Nevada. Just really wonderful nature writing.

Wait, were you reading as you work out? How does that work?
Well, not when I do my pull-ups and things that I need my hands for, but after that I have an elliptical. I get on it. I do some high intensity intervals while I’m reading. I do find that, and I unfortunately conditioned myself to do this when I was in college, which is when I started what is now The Marginalian, I find that having the kinetic energy taxation on the body actually keeps me from being distracted mentally, ’cause I only have so much bandwidth. I channel the distraction energy and kinetic energy, and then I really focus on what I’m reading, which unfortunately I don’t do as well when I’m static.

That’s fascinating. For me, it’s music. I focus better when I have some kind of music playing.
Really? I stopped being able to read to music quite abruptly, maybe about seven years ago. I don’t know what happened. It started distracting me as opposed to honing my focus.

So that’s your routine. You get up, you meditate, and then you work out. How did you choose what to read today? Go ahead.
Oh, and then after that I write. I have some food, which is always the same every day and we’re not getting into the weeds of that. And then I write. Depending on my energy level and focus level, I can do a few hours of just focused continuous writing and then I just fade. I’ve learned to notice the moment when my brain stops being creative. Because I can keep working, but it’s lost its vision edge. So I’ve learned to feel that moment and then move on to administrative work or something profoundly uncreative.

You hit the point of diminishing returns.
Yes!

I’m very familiar with that point. So you alluded to this. You started this now massive endeavor at work under a different name. You were in college working one of four jobs. You started this thing, you called it Brain Pickings. You sent it to six friends. What was the initial impulse?
Well, so I think it was multiple things. First of all, I had come here to the US as a teenager six days after my 19th birthday, alone, to go to college, sold on the liberal arts education promise of being taught how to live. And came from Bulgaria. I thought I was prepared. I went to an American high school in Bulgaria, so I thought, “Oh, I have this America thing down.” and then I get here and it is just total disorientation. I mean, fitted sheets? Fitted sheets and brunch.

You didn’t have fitted sheets in Bulgaria?
No! You tuck your own corners. I mean, come on. But mostly it was the colossal scale of everything, including the school I went to, which with the faculty and graduate students was 40,000 people.

Wow, where’d you go?
I went to Penn. And the total overwhelm[ingness] of that and also not understanding income and equality as a concept. I’ve come from the 99 percent of Bulgaria to the 1 percent of America. My parents cobbled together $800 when I left and gave it to me thinking it’s going to last me a year, and by the time I bought the fitted sheets and my textbooks, it was gone. And I had to pay for school and feed myself. So all those jobs and such. And I just felt really alienated from my peers, but mostly I didn’t find that the education model of standardized testing, 400 person lecture halls, PowerPoint slides, none of that felt to me like learning how to live. And so, I in my frustration started going to the library and completely sporadically pulling out Aristotle or whatever, just trying to figure out how to do it on my own. And keeping a record of that for myself.

Now meanwhile, one of the four jobs that I had was at this little creative agency, these six guys, young idealists who had won a bunch of awards in the ad world for the first effective anti-smoking campaign. And they wanted to use their powers for good, wanted to do meaningful work in the communication arts. So I’m interning there with them and I see that all their circulating the office forward emails for inspiration came from within their own field, other agencies and other things. And I was like, “Guys, maybe if you want to do really new and interesting work, you want to look at completely other fields. Can I start sending some just random things?” And Steve, the founder, lovely creative director, was like, “Sure.” So I started every Friday sending a combination of things that I was reading on my own that I thought were interesting and meaningful and just cool things that a 21, 20-year-old is excited about.

Like, oh, this new neuroscience study is showing a correlation between sleep and emotion. Or whatever it is, antique Japanese prints. Just very random hodgepodge things. So this was going around on an email to these guys and they started saying, “Oh, can you add my girlfriend and can you add my dad?” And I was like, “Guys, I have a full college course load of four jobs. I can’t administer an email newsletter.” So I decided the obvious thing to do was to take a night class and learn some coding and make it a website so that anyone could just go, and I didn’t have to deal with it. ‘Cause there were no blogs at the time. And that’s what I did.

I think that’s interesting, that the “obvious” thing to do was to make your life harder.
Well, short term versus long term. I must have known at this point that this was something that gave me sufficient delight that I would do it for a while. Of course, I had no idea that this would be my life and my livelihood, but I was like, “Okay, this is a long-term project.” It was like a six-week class or something. For which by the way, I made a little budget, $400 at the University of the Arts in Philly, the night class. Which I didn’t have. And so I ate store brand canned tuna, low sodium, and oatmeal three times a day, which I figured out was the most nutritious combo for the cheapest amount. And the money I saved, I got the night class. And that was that. I made the world’s ugliest website, called it Brain Pickings. God, terrible.

You’ve really moved on from that.
Really moved on. It took me 15 years to officially embrace how much I hated it, but I hated it from month two.

Oh, really? It was it that early. We’ll get into that. What would you tell 21-year-old Maria today? Or would you just let her figure it out for herself again?
Oh, I would tell her drop out. Drop out. In Bulgarian, there is no word for dropping out. It’s just not on the menu of possibilities. When I was applying for a green card, my lawyer made me do some interviews because it was one of the criteria. Anyway, in that episode where I was doing interviews, this journalist said to me in a very matter of fact way, he was like, “And so when did you drop out?” He assumed that I had dropped out. And I had this booming mind blown moment of, “Oh, I could have done that, not had the hustle and really unsatisfying education and the huge debt.” I had such a miserable time in college, just so hard. I just wish I’d known. And this is the thing, always the best advice we can give our younger selves is you don’t have to accept the options handed down by culture as you know it, there are other options.

For the record, I’m still figuring out how to be an American. And I don’t know anyone who goes to college to learn how to live. 
I guess we never caught up with liberal arts education was invented a long time before capitalism and have these ideals that I do think are salvageable. I mean, in Penn’s defense, by my junior year I figured out that they were seminars, small classes that dealt with deep subjects. And you can navigate and still find the core ideals but overall, yes, education in America and most of the West is just a conveyor belt for making workers for capitalism.

The thing that I’ve come to realize about you and your work is how deeply personal it is. The writings you’re mining and sharing all pertain to something you’re going through in your life, and yet the appeal has proven to be quite universal. You’ve gotten this audience now, you’re doing this for a living. I wonder if you’ve thought about that space between your personal intellectual quest and the public forum in which you place it where it takes on a life of its own.
Well, first of all, thank you for saying that. That’s a very sensitive reading of what I do. Not everyone will perceive that it’s a deeply personal thing. But the fact of the matter is that I still write for the same reasons I started when I was in my early-20s, which is to just figure it out. Just to figure out my life. And over time I learned that my peculiarity is that I think best in writing. I work it out in the course of writing.

We’re not nearly as unique as we feel that we are from the inside of our own experience. Baldwin actually had a wonderful line in one of his essays: “You think your pain and suffering are alone in the history of the world, and then you read.” And that’s been my experience. I find so much consolation and assurance and guidance in the lives of people who have lived before me, which also is why there are however many million people, strangers out there who read what I write and find echoes and relevance to their personal life. ‘Cause we’re pretty much all dealing with the same fundamental longings and fears and hopes. They may have different shape, but underneath it, it’s pretty much all the same.

You’ve described your own site as “a record of my reading and reckoning with our search for meaning.” And what comes up a lot that I find super interesting and enlightening is where you plumb the intersection of science and poetry. Your whole book “Figuring,” from 2019, is broadly about that intersection. I suspect you don’t love the word curation, but you do curate ideas and philosophies and discoveries, and what’s really great about what you do is the cross-pollination across genres, disciplines, ideas. You connect dots. Where do you find that connection most fruitful?
I think where I struggle and I think where we as a culture struggle most is the integration of the cerebral and the emotional.

The Cartesian split, right?
That’s right. I mean this guy, it’s so much damage all these centuries later. Sorry Descartes, you did give us some of calculus, so there’s that.

Which I didn’t pass. All right, we’ll give him that.
We live in uncertain times. The craving for certainty is so dominant and so overwhelming that we lose so much of the nuance and mystery and uncertainty that are the wellspring of wonder in life. And I think fundamentally we all crave a life of wonder. What else is there? In love, in beauty, and all those things, there’s this undertone of wonder that is what makes them satisfying. And for me, that comes alive most readily when we enter through these twin portals of truth and meaning. I think the fundamental mystery of the universe, these large abstract impersonal forces that are the reason we exist are profoundly interesting and full of wonder. And they are elemental truths that are not subjective realities. They are things we can discover; electromagnetism and gravitational waves and concrete things that obey mathematical principles that it’s on us to discover.

And at the same time, we live in our subjective realities of feeling, and that is where the search for meaning comes from. How do we manufacture this feeling of meaning given we are the product of completely austere impersonal forces and we are transient and we will die and return our borrowed stardust to this cold universe that made it. And in the meantime, how do we make meaning? So poetry, I mean it doesn’t have to be straight up poetry, but the poetic sensibility is where we explore that I think most readily and most unafraid of feeling in uncertainty and science is that foundational anchoring that brings us back to what we are and what we have to work with to make these cathedrals of understanding.

Your use of the language is wonderful. I love “borrowed stardust.” I love “cathedrals of understanding.” At the end of every year you write your list of the best of The Marginalian, and it’s the stories that either resonated most with readers through clicks or that you enjoyed most reading. You’ve got one on George Saunders, who I love.
What a lovely human being and writer.

He’s amazing. And the essay that you highlighted was him talking about mistaking the world we’ve made with our thoughts for the real world, which is something I grapple with a lot. We all think we’re the main characters in our own movie. It’s a very Darwinian way to view the world, but it’s also, as we’ve seen, very destructive.
And also Cartesian. I mean, “I think, therefore I am?” That’s absurd.

There’s some people who don’t think, that are, unfortunately.
We’ve got to have some tenderness and some compassion for consciousness, which is all we have. I mean, consciousness has a huge blind spot. It’s the only lens we have on reality, and of course we’re going to mistake the lens for reality itself ’cause it’s all we got. What I love about George Saunders and a lot of the thinkers and writers that I am pulled toward is the willingness to step beyond that and say, well, maybe my experience of reality is just my experience of reality and not reality itself, and how about getting curious about this other person? And yesterday, or Sunday morning — this is something I’m new to, but I’m obsessed with it — I went cold plunging in the ocean in Coney Island. And I went with someone I’m close with and …

Was this part of the Polar Bear Club?
Oh no, I would not do something that social. We’re a pair of introverts going into the water. So when she puts on the timer and we’re sitting there and I say, “God, needles. Those needles!” And she was like, “Oh, your sensation is of needles? Mine’s not that at all.” And I was like, “Oh, what is your sensation?” And she thought about it. She said something very different. She thought for a second she said, “Pressure. A lot of pressure.” And it’s interesting. I mean we are two human bodies, very similar format, in the same environment, under the same stimuli, having a completely different sensorial experience. It just struck me as such a metaphor for our cerebral emotional, psychic spiritual experiences as well. My needles are your pressure, you can bear that in mind.

I’m a needles guy, for what it’s worth. You were born, you mentioned in communist Bulgaria, and there’s something about The Marginalian that is very not aligned with 21st century American popular culture. And yet it couldn’t really exist anywhere else. I wonder if you’ve thought about that, your Bulgarian-ness in this 21st century American medium.
Well, I don’t know that my Bulgarian-ness necessarily so much as… I was actually just thinking about that recently. I often get emails from young people starting out some project and saying, “Oh, I really admire your donation based thing and ad free and all that. Does it work?”

That’s great, because I want to know: how does this work? 
But here’s the thing. Does it work is a binary question? What’s your timescale is my question. How willing are you for it to not work for a long time until it starts naturally working? So I was thinking, well, why did I… Because for me, the first six or seven years, there’s nothing, I have to work jobs. And then I realized I have a privilege that I must not take for granted, which is that when you grow up without much, or to use the very broad word poor, by American standards, of course everyone of my generation Bulgaria was poor. But the thing with communism is everyone’s poor, so you don’t really feel it so much. You just live, that’s just your life. And that’s just how it is.

There’s no keeping up with the Joneses.
Exactly. Once you have that in your system, I think it’s a real gift because it makes you less afraid of that. And so when I was in college here and really struggling financially, it was a practical annoyance but I didn’t have self-image problems about it. There was no emotional valence to it. It was more of a logistical thing; “Okay, I need to get food.” But I was just never afraid of having little. So when the time came to put my little website on the internet, I’ve always been an outsider to everything, from kindergarten on. I just always had my way. Just observing the internet, this is the early 2000s, I was just repulsed by the assault of popups and ads, and there was this era of advertorials where you couldn’t tell if somebody was paying for whatever you’re reading.

That’s still with us.
That is still here. Of course. It just felt so impure. And I thought, I just want to make the thing I would enjoy, see exist. And it took years. I mean, it’s always a question of scale. So when these young people ask me, “Does it work?” I want to say, well, if you show up every single day for six, seven years expecting nothing, maybe you’ll reach enough people that it’ll quote-unquote “work.” But you never know. It can’t be a goal. For me at least, I think it would’ve totally sullied my experience of it if I was doing it for that purpose. And I wouldn’t have stuck with it, that’s the other thing. I mean, we are even at our most tenacious, really, really seduced by instant gratification.

And as soon as you make something a goal and it’s not being met on the timescale of your desire, you get really demotivated. I knew nobody that was in the cultural canon of America thought when I discovered Susan Sontag, I felt like the luckiest person in the world. I went on this deep dive, all her diaries. And I would go through these phases that most Americans knew of these things, and I’d get so excited. That was my reward and I just enjoyed it so much the other stuff didn’t matter.

It’s interesting, because you started as Brain Pickings. We talked about how you didn’t like the name from day three or whatever. You changed it to The Marginalian in 2021, which is an interesting word for me. Marginalia are the notes you take in the margins, it’s a dialogue. It’s an attempt at understanding. It’s highlighting what’s relevant. But also things that are “marginalized” have been shunted off to the side. They’re the less relevant things. So what is it for you? Is it what’s relevant or what’s less relevant?
Oh, it’s all those things. It’s my conversation with whatever I’m encountering, reading, thinking about, in the margins, my conversation with it. But also realizing in hindsight over those 15 years that a lot of the ideas and people that I’ve been drawn to have existed in the margins of their culture, of their time and place. I have felt like a marginal person myself most of my life, all of my life really. And somehow these two things felt just right.

So even in Bulgaria, you felt marginalized. You said that you moved here at 19. I know that you were raised by grandparents. You had two very different sets of grandparents. What was your childhood like that made you feel like marginalia?
Well, my city grandparents, my father’s parents, are engineers, atheists, huge library, hyper-intellectual, not super warm.

But being intellectuals then, did that mean they were aligned with the party or they were against the party?
Oh yeah, they were communists. Even after the fall of communism. And my grandfather was a general in the Bulgarian military, so I can only imagine the kind of identity disorientation this man must have gone through when the dictatorship went away. I think they really believed in the communist ideals long after. And my parents were very young, were hyper pro-democracy, taking me out on the plaza where the night when the dictatorship was toppled in front of the parliament, thousands of people with lighters singing Beatles songs. Those were my parents. So they had not aligned with my dad’s parents even though we lived with them, which was awkward. My parents and I lived on a pullout sofa in my grandmother’s drafting studio. My grandmother is a civil engineer, so a lot of architectural type drawings. So there’s this huge graphing table on our pullout sofa, lived on there.

My other grandparents in the country, well, I’ll leave the grandfather alone ’cause he was a deeply abusive and problematic character. Where my grandmother, my mother’s mother, just totally the opposite. Never went to university, ball of warmth and love. Just unconditional love, deeply empathetic person, all about being outdoors, just wonderful, wonderful human being who to this day is I think the person who understands me best, even though she doesn’t really get the internet. She understands conceptually what I do, but not really the day to day of my life.

She’s still with us now?
Both the grandmothers are, yeah. And they’re both still just night and day. Anyway, so that was my childhood shuttling between these two total extremes of life. And there were never any other kids around in the country where I spent much of the time of my early childhood. I was always the only one. So a lot of loneliness, a lot of trying to create my own sense of delight and meaning in the isolation. And also I do think my brain’s just strange in its own way. I did a lot of very intense math early in life. I went to the Valerian National Math Academy, quadratic equations, European Math Olympics at age 12, that kind of thing. I loved it. I still love that kind of thing. So I think some of it just comes with how we came out of the factory. The biology is just off kilter a little bit for me.

That’s funny. Having kids really settles the nature versus nurture question. I think for me it has.
What have you found with yours?

Oh, I’ve found that nature is stronger than nurture. But nurture is obviously a guiding force. You need both. But that’s my experience.
What’s interesting is my friends growing up, they were the children of a family that my parents were friends with. They were identical twins, which is its own R&D lab for nature versus nurture. And their personalities are so profoundly different. Even though they have the same parents and the same genes pretty much.

I love that. That’s fascinating. So it’s early 2024. I feel like it’s probably still fair game to bring this up, but I mentioned your best of list every year. I wonder if looking at the titles alone gives us a sense of what you were going through in 2023.
Oh wow. That’s a big one.

There are posts about entering middle age, dealing with aging parents. There are a few on love and loving. Is everything okay? I guess that’s what I’m asking.
I am always all right adjacent.

That’s a good place to be. No, there’s some gems in there. I mentioned the George Saunders piece, which I loved. You’ve got Rene Magritte on the antidote to the banality of pessimism. You write: “To find joy for oneself and spark it in others, to find hope for oneself and spark it in others is nothing less than a counter-cultural act of courage and resistance.”
And I believe that absolutely. Yeah.

Do you see what you’re doing as an act of resistance? There’s almost something peacefully defiant about all of it.
Oh, that’s a lovely phrase. Thank you. I mean, I do it for me. I need that defiance of despair to get through my days. And if I don’t do that, I wouldn’t be all right adjacent. I live with pretty intense depression that’s with me all the time. And how I manage it is a matter of precisely that kind of defiance. If it does that for others, that’s wonderful. Make me so happy. But I do it for me.

And yet it resonates with so many people. And the themes are so universal because another one that you have is Virginia Woolf writing about the courage to be yourself, which I think sounds on the surface like, “Well, I am myself. What do you mean? That’s easy.” You start by asking what makes you and your childhood self the same person? Which seems to be a theme that you come back to.
I wrote about that first many years ago around philosopher Rebecca Goldstein’s book on Spinoza. And in the introduction she raises a lot of these questions of, well, all your cells are literally different from when you were small and your beliefs and your friends. And so what is it? What is this through line? And it’s something I think about all the time, even now, having this conversation with you and being transported to this person that I was in college in so many ways I’m embarrassed by. But I think if you’re not sufficiently embarrassed by your past selves, maybe you’re not doing it right. You know what I mean? You’re not. That’s right. I mean complacency is just terrifying.

You wrote that line about your childhood self and your current person, but she wrote, “One cannot write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes.”
It disappears.

Beyond the difficulty of communicating oneself, there’s the supreme difficulty of being oneself. The soul or the life within us by no means agrees with the life outside us. There’s that split again.
I love that there are people thinking about these things long before what we consider singular pressures of our time. I think now about the kids in college on Instagram comparing themselves to this formulaic expectation of visibility. It feels so much harder to be yourself now, but really it’s always been hard. It’s never been easy.

Unfortunately there’s no way to quantify it. Has it gotten harder? I wonder. Or if it’s just a hard but a different flavor?
Well, this reminds me again of Baldwin in a wonderful essay on Shakespeare that he wrote. And he says, “We think that his time was easier than ours. But no time is easy when one is living through it.”

Amen. This actually is a nice segue because we’ve lived through another year. At the end of each year since the seventh year you’ve added a new thing you’ve learned for the year. Or a piece of life advice. And I’d say if no one reads anything else on your site, just start with the compendium of 17 things you’ve learned. For 2023 you wrote, “Everything is eventually recompensed, every effort of the heart eventually requited, though not always in the form you imagined or hope for.” So karma is real, I guess. What’s the backstory there? What made you come to that, this is my period at the end of 2023.
I can’t answer that without going into something very personal that I would rather not go into.

Got it. Totally fair. But it’s good to take away. Everything comes back maybe not in the shape you thought it would. But just going through the whole list of the past 17 items, I wonder if it’s reductive to chart your own evolution through the list. The earliest entry seem to be very much about integrity, which I take is very important to you. Be honest, don’t work for money or prestige alone. Be generous. Then it moves on to fighting cynicism. Maybe you’re grappling with it a little bit. You’re being an idealist, enlarging your spirit. And the last couple of years have been more about evolving, outgrowing yourself. Un-selfing. Is that simplifying your arc?
Not at all. It’s so interesting and very perceptive. I’d never thought of it as an arc and as a trajectory, but I do think there’s almost like a Rube Goldberg machine of consequences for those things. Because if you start out doing your own thing, not angling for approval or prestige or whatever, inevitably you watch the world reward other types of things that are maybe not as pure or whatever. You can slip into cynicism. You can slip into self comparison, despair and all of that. And I think part of the soul hygiene of life is to continually counteract that by coming back to the source of your delight and the real rewards. To your point, that is an act of cultural courage and resistance, isn’t it? To not succumb to these comparative value systems that have nothing to do with what brings us joy.

It’s so hard. You’ve written a couple of books, I mentioned “Figuring.” You did “A Velocity of Being” in 2018, which you say was born out of a deep concern for the future of books and a love of literature. Is this a thing that parents should get for their kids when they have kids or anyone should read or…
This is not for young kids. This is 121 interesting people that I knew I asked to write letters to children, asking them, think about the brightest 12-year-old, address them and write to them about the joy and rewards and importance of books and reading and how it shaped your life. Amongst the 121 people there are a lot of writers, people like Jane Goodall and Yo-Yo Ma, and philosophers, poets, just people that I thought were doing beautiful things with their lives who were deeply impacted by reading. So it’s a love letter to books and to reading. Not when you’ve just had kids though, just wait a while.

Books have become a fun side project for me in a way because as I’ve grown older, I’ve enjoyed more and more kind of long form writing, which is long form thinking really. And I actually have a bunch of books coming out in the next year and a half.

A bunch? I know about the “Universe of Verse.” What is that and what else do you have coming out?
So the “Universe of Verse” is a live show that I started in 2017. This was shortly after the Trump election and the age of alternative facts, when all these environmental protections are being dismantled and the despair and the helplessness. I was writing Figuring at the time in which the astronomer, Maria Mitchell is one of the key figures. And she’s the first professional woman astronomer in America, paved the way for women in science. She loved poetry and she used to hold at the observatory at Vassar where she taught, she taught the first class of astrophysicists in the world who happened to be women. She held these dome parties in the observatory where she lived on the little cot under the dome and they would all gather. Because her curriculum was extremely mathematically rigorous, so she would try to lighten it by having the girls write poems about whatever they were discovering and studying and all that.

So I had that on my mind and I thought it was a lovely combination of science and poetry and search for meaning, search for truth, all those things. So I thought, “Well, what if we do a show that’s celebrating science — like reality, not ‘alternative facts’ — through this back door of poetry and feeling that is so much more welcoming. And what if it’s a charitable thing that donates the proceeds to environmental conservation? Which at the time was so imperiled. So I started this show, inviting people that I know who love poetry or science, musicians, actors, whatever, to read poems. And I tell some stories from the history of science around it. And it took off. I mean, I really didn’t think anyone would come. And the line was around the block. There was like a thousand people. And every year I’ve done it’s just so joyful and we all walk away magnified.

So anyway, now I’ve made a little book of it that’s 15 essays about different aspects of science, from dark matter to entropy, the evolution of flowers,. Each of them paired with a poem that speaks somehow to whatever that science is, and with some beautiful art by this artist, Ofra Amit. So that’s one, that’s coming out in October.

I mean, again, this is back to the stubbornness. I really think the best way to complain is to do something. And I was sitting with my friend Sarah McNally, who has bookstores here in New York, the wonderful McNally Jackson.

I’ve heard of it, yeah. [Laughs]
She’s one of my closest friends. And I was just going on some rant about how one of the great banes of my existence, these 17, 18 years of doing The Marginalian and I said, I so often come upon beautiful substantive books that are deeply out of print because some commercial publisher decided they’re not easy and marketable enough and just let them perish. And Sarah was like, “Let’s start an imprint. Bring them back.”

Amazing. Love it.
And I was like, oh yeah, why not? So we started one. It’s launching early next year where I choose books that I love that are out of print and I write these introductions contextualizing the people and the ideas, and we’re hoping to steward new life into them. And then I have another big book similar to “Figuring,” just my own long 500 page reckoning. Would think that’s coming out late next year. It’s called “Traversal.”

“Traversal.”
You’re the first to hear it.

All right, we’re breaking news! I know you’re very routine based. Is there a coffee shop or a walk or something you want to shout out?
I’m not a coffee shop person, although I will say my neighborhood has a new coffee shop, the first coffee shop I’ve loved spending time in in my life. It’s called Red Hook Coffee Shop on Van Brunt. It’s wonderful. This woman from Mexico City runs it and it’s partly coffee shop, partly vintage clothing and furniture store. Just so warm.

I love Red Hook. Probably my favorite neighborhood.
Oh yeah. If I hadn’t moved to Red Hook, I would’ve left New York. Red Hook feels like its own little island of nature and serenity.

I fear for its future with the climate change, but we have it for now.
Well, that and the cruise ships are our big problem right now.

So you’re not going on one of those massive cruises anytime soon.
That’s probably the definition of my worst nightmare.

Same. I don’t know if you have anything you want to add. We’ve covered a lot of ground. We’ve gone wide, but not deep, which is how I roll. You go narrow and deep.
I just want to say thank you for what you do and the spirit in which you do it. I think it’s so rare and important to create culture and not cater. I think every little touch of Brooklyn Magazine is creation and not catering, and I really appreciate that. That’s counter-cultural too.

Check out this episode of “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast” for more. Subscribe and listen wherever you get your podcasts.

The post Maria Popova’s vivid life in the margins appeared first on Brooklyn Magazine.



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