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Figuring

Written by: Maria Popova
Narrated by: Natascha McElhone
Length: 21 hrs and 27 mins
5 out of 5 stars (8 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

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.

©2019 Maria Popova (P)2019 Random House Audio

What the critics say

“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)

What members say

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  • Laura Glenewinkel
  • 2019-03-12

Stunning

This is now one of my favorite books of all time. Having no idea what to expect, I followed the recommendation of the Patti Smith who praised Figuring on Instagram in such a reverent tone, I put it at the top of my reading list. I am so happy I followed my intuition.

Also, I would like somehow to have Natascha McElhone read every book to me from now on - her reading was perfectly wonderful.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • BlackMalePower
  • 2019-03-08

Fascinating collection of biographical accounts

The narration was wonderful. The story hops around quite a bit between decades and centuries so it requires the utmost attention to follow. Nevertheless, the author strings words and sentences together as eloquently as the legends she honors with this magnificent work of art.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • McBryde
  • 2019-03-11

A Symphony of Beauty, Wonder, and Truth

This book is a triumph. It is an offering of the author’s soul and a splendid expression of beauty, pain, and meaning. I have never felt peace knowing that we are fragments of stardust flung broadside against an unfeeling and uncaring universe, but this book is a celebration of the human spirit to flame and dance in the face of such wonderful annihilation. Maria Popova must write more, but even if this little volume remains the only testament to her empathy and brilliance, it is testament enough.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Teresa T
  • CT
  • 2019-08-09

Loved the entire book!

I absolutely loved this book. It is History, but not dry; Feminist, but not strident; Lyrical, but not sappy. The first-person narrator's voice is woven in so that she is ever present and yet, most of the time, nearly invisible. It is non-fiction that places you in-scene so effectively, with characters drawn so vividly, that it transports the way great fiction does. Oh, on top of all that, it is both insightful and educational. I am so very pleased to have discovered this author. I wish I could recall who recommended this book to me so I could thank them.

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  • Brad
  • Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
  • 2019-06-20

An Amazing work

This is a truly inspired and beautiful book. Popova does a masterful job of weaving together the complex themes of science, art, genius and creativity amide the back drop of women’s and gender equality life and love.

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  • LORETTA LIBBY ATKINS
  • 2019-06-08

Breathtaking

A gorgeously written and researched book. A circuitous swoon over centuries of deep thought from minds of whom we rarely hear. This is a tour de force for Popova, who many will know through her blog Brain Pickings— and if you don’t —you should.

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  • NM
  • 2019-04-30

A thing of beauty...

"A thing of beauty is a joy forever." - Keats.

Popova's Figuring is thing of beauty. I have never felt compelled to write a review, but not to share the pleasure I found in the pages of this book, feels insincere. Her writing is timeless art with enduring relevance.

Popova may well join the ranks, one day, of the historical figures she wrote about in Figuring for her own genius and elucidation through the written word. In a time when HaHas, OMGs, and LOLs stand in for writing, her sophisticated writing is refreshing.

A must in every personal library!

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  • Salimah J. Perkins
  • Baltimore, Maryland United States
  • 2019-04-24

Informative & Indulgent

I respect Maria Popova’s contribution to the historical perspective; however, points might have been made in half the time.

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  • pseudar
  • 2019-03-23

Stream of higher consciousness

Maria popova delights and amazes with her integration of history, philosophy, science and human drama across four centuries. I’ve been a fan of her Brain Pickings newsletter for years. If each newsletter is a dip in the water, then this book is a voyage at sea. Makes for contemplative, thought provoking listening. Natascha McElhone’s sublime performance brings vivacity and depth. Thank you Maria for taking the time to make this book as meticulous and perfect as you did.

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  • Carrie E. Ruggieri
  • 2019-03-10

Gorgeous book & gorgeous narration

I listened twice because I love this narrators voice. This book is a treasure chest of history and beautiful writing by a beautiful writer. I think this will always be my favorite book. One I will read and listen to many many times for many different moods and reasons.