Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings

Maria Popova, the founder of the literary blog Brain Pickings, in New York. ‘Why would I want to write something that would have the shelf life of a banana?” Photograph: Elizabeth Lippman/The New York Times

Maria Popova, the founder of the literary blog Brain Pickings, in New York. ‘Why would I want to write something that would have the shelf life of a banana?” Photograph: Elizabeth Lippman/The New York Times

 

‘Why would I want to write something that would have the shelf life of a banana?” Maria Popova asked the interviewer from the New York Times. Popova must be one of the few bright young literary things living in uber-cool Brooklyn who doesn’t want to write a book.

Instead the Bulgarian-born 30-year-old is happy doing what she loves – pulling out and collating bits and fishes of wisdom on various topics from the wide sea of literature, science, art, history and general knowledge; making her own observations; sometimes commissioning artists or illustrators to paint or draw artwork to go with the piece; and then uploading it to her blog.

Brain Pickings is the result. Its tagline is: “A library of cross-disciplinary interestingness and combinatorial creativity”, and it is a kind of library – one run by a knowledgeable and enthusiastic librarian who loves showing you books she thinks you might like. Some of the material is brand new, but much of it is old and/or unjustifiably neglected. Begun in 2006, Brain Pickings grew out of a series of emails Popova would send around to colleagues in her office every Friday. It now has several million viewers a month.

There is an emphasis on creativity, with a periodically updated reading list of famous advice on writing featuring Kurt Vonnegut, Henry Miller, Stephen King, F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Zadie Smith, and more.

On a randomly chosen day recently, there was a consideration of death and grief, inspired by Anne Lamott’s book of essays Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace. There was a piece – with beautiful accompanying artwork – on words for which there is no equivalent in English, inspired by writer and illustrator Ella Frances Sanders’s Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World; and Popova’s list of the best science books of 2014.

Popova equates her passion for discovering knowledge with her childhood love of looking at volumes of her grandfather’s encyclopaedias back in her homeland. She sees her job on the site as “helping people become interested in things they didn’t know they were interested in, until they are”.

She isn’t without her critics. She has been berated for being condescending and elitist. This, frankly, is baffling. The service is free, the site welcoming. If you don’t like, click on by. Then again, she has also been criticized for being too “pop” – tsk! – the jaunty yellow and black graphics and the link to a literary jukebox (a side project in which Popova a pairs a quote from a book with a suitable piece of music) probably don’t help. Then there’s the fact that though the site appears blissfully ad free, there are requests for donations on every page, despite the fact that it has an affiliate link with Amazon so that if you follow a link from Brain Pickings to Amazon.com, a portion of any money you spend on Amazon that session goes to Popova. The controversies surrounding Amazon itself aside, there are those who argue that because of it Popova makes a good living and doesn’t need donations. But again, there’s no obligation – you won’t be blocked if you don’t cough up. Also, and importantly, in addition to the Amazon link, each book has a link to the international public library network site, WorldCat.org, so no matter where you live, with a couple of clicks you can check which library near you has a copy.

There are many excellent websites for the generally curious but for me Popova is a nugget-digger like no other. brainpickings.org

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