Brain Pickings is the result of Maria Popova’s pursuit of her own truth, the record of her becoming as a person — intellectually, creatively, spiritually — and an inquiry into what it means to live a good life.
Popova is one of the most incisive literati of the 21st century. It’s no wonder 1.2 million people read her blog each month.
My introduction to it was this post about Leo Tolstoy’s efforts to find meaning in a meaningless world. Popova’s analysis and the content she shared were both remarkably inspiring.
For instance, here’s part of Popova’s description:
With his greatest works behind him, he found his sense of purpose dwindling as his celebrity and public acclaim billowed, sinking into a state of deep depression and melancholia despite having a large estate, good health for his age, a wife who had born him fourteen children, and the promise of eternal literary fame. On the brink of suicide, he made one last grasp at light amidst the darkness of his existence, turning to the world’s great religious and philosophical traditions for answers to the age-old question regarding the meaning of life.
And here’s Tolstoy’s experience, described in quintessential existential detail:
Today or tomorrow sickness and death will come (they had come already) to those I love or to me; nothing will remain but stench and worms. Sooner or later my affairs, whatever they may be, will be forgotten, and I shall not exist. Then why go on making any effort? . . . How can man fail to see this? And how go on living? That is what is surprising! One can only live while one is intoxicated with life; as soon as one is sober it is impossible not to see that it is all a mere fraud and a stupid fraud! That is precisely what it is: there is nothing either amusing or witty about it, it is simply cruel and stupid.
Had I simply understood that life had no meaning I could have borne it quietly, knowing that that was my lot. But I could not satisfy myself with that. Had I been like a man living in a wood from which he knows there is no exit, I could have lived; but I was like one lost in a wood who, horrified at having lost his way, rushes about wishing to find the road. He knows that each step he takes confuses him more and more, but still he cannot help rushing about. It was indeed terrible. And to rid myself of the terror I wished to kill myself.
Popova is a rare individual indeed – a renaissance woman keeping the spirit of wisdom, philosophical grasping, and cultural appreciation in the contemporary popular imagination.
Without her efforts, I may never have developed an appreciation for Tolstoy, existentialism, art, Kurt Vonnegut, Krista Tippett, and many other deeper aspects of life. In other words, I may not have become the same person because of the profound influence those things have had on my personal development.
Check out more of her work here:
Literary Jukebox: Quotes from beloved books, each thematically matched with a song.