Missed Connections

Maria Popova, Brain Pickings, and whether the internet has changed the way we think.

Collage of Maria Popova in a spiderweb.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Amber Gregory/FontShop/Wikipedia and Havana1234/Getty Images Plus.

A decade ago, lots of people worried that the internet was ruining their brains. In 2008, Nicholas Carr published an essay in the Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”—a question that pretty much answered itself. Carr felt sure that his increasing inability to concentrate, to immerse himself in a book or even a long article, had to be the result of his cognitive functions having been rewired by the web, making him hopelessly distractible. The counterargument to Carr’s theory, voiced by the usual gang of get-with-it-Grampa tech-positive pundits, held that every new communications technology is greeted by some form of panic and that if the internet fosters a skittering, browsing form of reading, well, maybe that’s what’s required in the brave new world we have created. At the time, blogger John Batelle wrote that when he was “jumping from link to link, reading deeply in one moment, skimming hundreds of links the next” and “devouring new connections as quickly as Google and the Web can serve them up,” he was “performing bricolage in real time” and getting “a lot smarter.” Besides, the internet has made more information, and therefore more knowledge, accessible to more people. And how could that be wrong?

Take, for example, Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings, a blog that ferrets out nuggets of intellectual gold from the works of such titans as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Franz Kafka, Emily Dickinson, James Baldwin, and Susan Sontag. In a 2012 profile that ran in the New York Times, the Bulgarian-born Popova described her plan “to build a new framework for what information matters” by extracting bite-sized insights and observations from material of uncontested worth—the essays of Einstein, Pablo Neruda’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the political writings of Albert Camus—and delivering them to an appreciative audience. Even though her sources were books, Popova told the Times, she had no intention of writing one herself. “That’s such an antiquated model of thinking,” she said. “Why would I want to write something that’s going to have the shelf life of a banana?”

Popova’s new book, Figuring, seems an excellent occasion to revisit how living and working on the internet has changed the way we think. Today, the worries of 2008 look almost endearingly naive: Forget about the web making us dumber; let’s talk about how it has transformed us into tribalized rage monsters. I still associate Brain Pickings with a brief period between 2008 and 2012 when the internet still retained a whiff of utopia, when it felt like a smorgasbord of big and small wonders, when my Twitter feed consisted of smart people recommending interesting articles and trading clever quips. Nostalgia has kept Brain Pickings in my feed, along with the weird form of posthumous schadenfreude I experience every time Popova tweets a photo of Susan Sontag and I imagine how the incorrigibly snooty Sontag must be writhing in her grave to see her work repurposed into the middlebrow stuff of inspirational quotes, writing tips, and life lessons.

The shortcomings of Brain Pickings are also the shortcomings of Figuring, a mélange of biographical snippets, elevating extracts, and woozy, century-hopping rhapsodies about how everything and everyone is connected. Did you know that the 17th-century German astronomer Johannes Kepler asserted that lunar gravity was responsible for the tides and that “a quarter millennium later,” Emily Dickinson would write a poem in which the central metaphor is the moon’s control of the tides, thereby drawing “on Kepler’s legacy”? Just think about that for a moment—especially if you are high or a character in the Richard Linklater movie Slacker.

Of course, if your native habitat, like Popova’s, is the web, then Kepler and Dickinson might very well be linked, possibly because you linked them yourself. That’s easy enough to accomplish with a few bits of code, providing the giddy, free-associative meandering that Batelle celebrated. After a reader has followed your link from Kepler to Dickinson online, she might get lost in a poem or the story of Dickinson’s reclusive existence and propensity for wearing white, and by then she might have forgotten what brought her to this site entirely. On the printed page, not so much. On the printed page, a writer must make her point directly or risk losing the reader because in print, sending the reader elsewhere is a bug, not a feature. If Popova’s goal with this book is, as she writes, to pay tribute to “the invisible connections—between ideas, between disciplines, between the denizens of a particular time and a particular place, between the interior world of each pioneer and the mark they leave on the cave walls of culture,” then one of her priorities ought to be making those connections truly visible.

Figuring concerns an assortment of historical persons ranging from the well-known to the relatively unfamiliar: Kepler, Dickinson, and Margaret Fuller, but also the 19th-century American astronomer Maria Mitchell, the sculptor Harriet Hosmer, and the British scientist Mary Somerville, who was tutor to Ada Lovelace and, in 1835, became one of the first two women admitted to the Royal Astronomical Society. Recurring themes include the difficulties of being a genius ahead of one’s time, the pervasive sexism that blocks talented women from achieving their potential, the intolerance of religious authorities, same-sex love, and the folly of believing that life must be sacrificed for art. Not surprisingly, the same topics often come up in Brain Pickings.

What Figuring lacks is meaningful links, the connective tissue—narrative, argument, character—to make these elements feel like a significant whole instead of a grab bag of mildly cool factoids. In its place is a lot of vaporous palaver about art, truth, beauty, and genius. There’s an epiphany on seemingly every page, and almost anything can set Popova off. A mere five paragraphs into the book and she’s describing a morning when she noticed a leaf apparently suspended in midair that, when examined more closely, turned out to be dangling from a spider’s web:

Neither the spider has planned for the leaf nor the leaf for the spider—and yet there they are, an accidental pendulum propelled by the same forces that cradle the moons of Jupiter in orbit, animated into this ephemeral early-morning splendor by eternal cosmic laws impervious to beauty and indifferent to meaning, yet replete with both to the bewildered human consciousness beholding it.

It’s not as if a writer can never legitimately attain this pitch of lyricism, but you’ve gotta earn it. It takes Fitzgerald all of The Great Gatsby to get to the famous last paragraph about Gatsby’s belief in the “orgiastic future” and Americans beating on, “boats against the current,” etc. Popova reaches for the orgiastic present on Page 3. This overwriting also seems a legacy of the internet, that empire of hyperbole, in which everyone clamors for each other’s attention by perpetually exaggerating the importance of what they want to say. This. Spiderweb. Is. Everything.

Brain Pickings has its purpose, and here’s how I imagine it: You, its intended reader, are a woman, young or not-so-young, working at a job—in advertising, perhaps, as Popova herself once did—that pays the bills but leaves you unsatisfied. You dream of writing that novel or essay collection, maybe starting a podcast. Your parents, your partner, your friends, none of them take your dream seriously, possibly because you can never quite get started on it. After work, you’re too tired for anything more than binging Killing Eve, or you want to go out and spend time with people you actually like. Is it even possible to have a real creative life without giving up something—love or kids or friendships? Why is it so hard to believe in yourself? Did the great thinkers and artists of the past go through this kind of shit?

Providing such a reader with what amounts to a daily dose of high-end self-help in her inbox every morning seems a perfectly respectable way to make a living. Although it’s sometimes annoying to see an artist you admire reduced to a metric for healthy sleep habits or a proponent for sticktoitiveness, the short, snackable nature of Brain Pickings makes it innocuous enough. Transferred to the antiquated model of a book, however, the flaws in Popova’s vision of how great minds work become harder to ignore. Whether or not Figuring will have the shelf life of a banana, it arrives on the market decidedly unripe.

There is a great deal about what it means to be a genius in Figuring, much of it as high-flown and vague as Popova’s aria about the spider’s web, and comparatively little about what the geniuses in question accomplished—the arena in which their genius was actually proven. They were lonely or misunderstood or struggled for recognition and freedom—experiences most of us can identify with. Often, however, the substance of their work, especially when it has to do with the sciences, gets quickly brushed aside in favor of the more interesting details of which of their male contemporaries did or did not appreciate their gifts. One notable exception to this is Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose epic poem, Aurora Leigh, Popova summarizes at length. Its subject? The romantic travails of a female genius.

I enjoy literary biography as much as the next person, but the picture of the creative life that emerges from extended exposure to this sort of thing is weirdly solipsistic. Apparently, the proper concern of geniuses—and artists, writers, and scientific visionaries in general—is the difficulty of being a genius. Their most salient contribution is not the poems they wrote or the comets they discovered, but the fact that they transcended that difficulty, and how they did it: their thinking on how to be true to yourself, how to defy the powerful, how to cultivate inner tranquility, how to persevere in dark times, how to embrace change, whether to get up early in the morning to write, how to overcome block, and so on. Creative work is less about the desire to make something than it is an identity or a lifestyle.

To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, anecdote is not literature, but I have a favorite one nonetheless. In his memoir, World Within World, the dilettante-ish Stephen Spender recalled a 1930 meeting with T.S. Eliot, then an editor at the Criterion. “At our first luncheon,” Spender writes, “he asked me what I wanted to do. I said: ‘Be a poet.’ ” Eliot’s reply? “I can understand you wanting to write poems, but I don’t quite know what you mean by ‘being a poet.’ ” Although even Eliot, who generally didn’t go in for such things, once supplied writing advice to a young correspondent—advice that has of course been reproduced in Brain Pickings—his thinking on this still seems sound to me: If the poems need to be written, then write them. He ought to know. He was, after all, a genius.

Figuring book cover.


By Maria Popova. Pantheon.