Oscar Schwartz on Maria Popova
“Books are the original internet,” Maria Popova tells me with a grin. She is switched on, ballsy, irresistibly articulate, fully engaged. This is Maria’s gift. She talks about complex ideas in a way that transforms them into something I want to talk about with my friends. She makes big concepts relevant.
“My bookshelves are completely full, and I’m still buying new ones compulsively,” she adds. “They’re piling up around me!”
Undoubtedly, it is this gift that makes Maria’s blog, Brain Pickings, such a success. Her thirst for knowledge means that she looks past the trends and fads that flash brightly in cyberspace, but are then forgotten hours later. Instead, she blogs about small bits of genius and curiosity that have been forgotten; antique ideas, perhaps. She finds the pearls of human interest amid an ocean of information.
For Maria, the most important thing is that every blog post have some element of human wisdom, something both timely and timeless: an illustrated biography of Charles Darwin, John Steinbeck’s hand-written letters to his eldest son about falling in love, Susan Sontag’s musings on the essence of art.
I first came across Maria’s blog around a year ago. What has kept me going back to Brain Pickings, almost daily, is the feeling that I’m standing in front of a friend’s carefully compiled bookshelf, and she is telling me about her favourite books, holding them up, and breathlessly describing why she is inspired by them. Brain Pickings is an experience that feels personal and utterly human.
I’m not the only one who feels this way about Maria’s blog; the US Library of Congress is going to preserve Brain Pickings in its archive. Maria’s writing is already valued as a significant cultural artefact.
When I Skype Maria, it’s one of the last warm autumn days in Melbourne, and one of the last cold nights in Brooklyn. Maria’s face appears on my screen, beaming. She is standing up, looking down at her iPad, which is resting flat on her desk. It gives me the feeling that I’m looking up through the screen, all the way into her Brooklyn apartment. “I hope it’s OK with you that I’m standing up,” she says. “It’s just that I can never work sitting down. I can’t be that still. It makes me uncomfortable.”
“It’s so nice to see some sunlight,” she says. “It’s so dark and gloomy here in Brooklyn. But I guess I shouldn’t complain; I’ve been away travelling most of March. Early spring is my travel season…”