Maria Popova

Maria Popova

Maria’s site is one of the first places I go when I’m curious about an author, a book, or a big idea. Brainpickings is fairly exhaustive, wonderfully eclectic, and skillfully curated so that some of the greatest thoughts of humanity are right at your fingertips.

Maria Popova is one of my main online inspirations. She’s a ravenous reader, an intelligent researcher, and a truly inspirational person. She writes at Brainpickings.org (which I rave about continually) on culture, books, and other “interestingness” which she discovers on- and offline. I am inspired by her story, her work, and her vision.

Her Story

Popova was born in 1984 in communist Bulgaria–yes, for us geographically-challenged Americans, that’s in Eastern Europe.

She moved to the States for college (Pennsylvania University), and has lived here ever since on a work visa, hoping to attain citizenship. (She’s another foreigner who makes better use of our national resources than most of us native Americans do.) She lives in Brooklyn, NY and spends her time reading, writing, giving the occasional lecture, and trying her hardest to find Truth and help others live better lives.

It was during college that she had an awakening about education which has led her to devote her life to the quest for truth. Being a typical bored college student, she found classes stifling and the assigned work as having a negative impact on her creativity. Then she found TED, an organization founded by Richard Saul Wurman, who is another vocal proponent for self-education and “information architecture”. In the talks TED is so renowned for, she experienced explosive discovery unlike her classroom experience. She has been deepening her devotion to learning and self-education ever since.

Her Faith

The national religion in Bulgaria is Eastern Orthodox Christianity, but communism sought to destroy religion altogether, which led to a sort of hard atheism. The closer you were to government the more nonreligious you were. Her Mom, growing up in the country, was therefore more religious than her Dad who came from a heritage of intellectuals.

She was caught in the middle. She says, “So I had these two grandmothers. One was the hard, atheist intellectual and the other who still to this day says prayers for me every night.” So she grew up with a “cautious curiosity” of religion. You can sense this curiosity in her writings where she seems to be trying to find the truth somewhere in between all that’s been said through history.

And I spend most of my days sort of buried in book piles and letters and diaries and old philosophy books and what not. But there’s this term that we hear in kind of new-agey circles: spiritual reparenting. Which is a bit too new-agey even for my taste, and I can be quite the hippie sometimes.[1]

She defines spiritual reparenting as, “Doing the work that your parents didn’t do for your spirit or for your character.”[2] Maria’s work is a natural outflow of this curiosity and mission. Her work is fast-paced and magnanimous, but what I respect about it most is her ultimate goal: "Above all, it’s about how these different disciplines illuminate one another to glean some insight, directly or indirectly, into that grand question of how to live, and how to live well." In a world of materialism and narcissism, her passion and work is quite rare, and to this we now turn.

Her Work

Brainpickings is Maria’s “labor of love” into which she pours around 450 hours a month. She reads around 12 books per week, writes 3 blog posts per day, and composes something like 20 tweets to go along with them. She says, “I read and write from the minute I wake up to the moment I go to sleep at night and everything in between. Even those — I get around on bikes, [which is how] I commute. And whatever I listen to, that feeds in. That’s part of the reading. And so I would say the hours are probably a lot more.”[3]

But she doesn’t care about this as a number. She hates acclaim from productivity since she sees productivity as the great enemy of presence, which she values far more (see number 6 on that list).

She started Brainpickings as a weekly email to seven friends in 2006 while she was in college, and it has grown into a website with something like 10,000 posts with 3 million visitors per month.[4] She writes about what other people have written about, which is to say, she doesn’t write much original content. Some call this style of authorship “content curation,” but she prefers to call herself something like an “information architect”.

The content she posts about varies from the writings of Christian author C. S. Lewis to the books of the New Atheist Sam Harris. She is in search far and wide for the timeless truths which help us live more full and meaningful lives.

By necessity she believes in finding those timeless truths not the just-in-time news the internet inundates us with. She says, “We’ve come to conflate journalism with news. And so much of that culture deals with what is urgent right now and not what is important in the grand scheme of things. And there is this sort of time bias or presentism bias that happens.”

If something interests me and is both timeless and timely, I write about it. Much of what is published online is content designed to be dead within hours, so I find most of my material offline. I gravitate more and more towards historical things that are somewhat obscure and yet timely in their sensibility and message.[5]

So I love that she follows her whim and nurtures that child-like exploration into truth, and that she values old books as I do. But the main thing I love about her work is the vision behind it.

Her Vision

I love that she believes in knowledge and Truth. She believes in a higher calling for her life, and for the betterment of humanity. She writes for the web, but she sees the problems technology causes and seeks out ways to redeem those problems for good. She says our culture seems to be “bored with thinking. We want to instantly know.” I love her solution:

And I’m very guided by this desire to counter that [technological consumerism] in myself because I am, like everybody else, a product of my time and my culture. And I remember, there’s a really beautiful commencement address that Adrienne Rich gave in 1977 in which she said that an education is not something that you get but something that you claim. And I think that’s very much true of knowledge itself. The reason we’re so increasingly intolerant of long articles and why we skim them, why we skip forward even in a short video that reduces a 300-page book into a three-minute animation — even in that we skip forward — is that we’ve been infected with this kind of pathological impatience that makes us want to have the knowledge but not do the work of claiming it. I mean, the true material of knowledge is meaning. And the meaningful is the opposite of the trivial. And the only thing that we should have gleaned by skimming and skipping forward is really trivia. And the only way to glean knowledge is contemplation. And the road to that is time. There’s nothing else. It’s just time. [6]

Probably the main thing I love about Maria is that she doesn’t have the self-importance most authors do. She doesn’t want to write a book; she doesn’t want that attention, fame, status, and responsibility. Plus, she says, there are billions of great books already published, why do we need yet one more, particularly one from a 30-year old from Bulgaria? She doesn’t even write personal pieces on her blog. Everything she writes is a curation of what someone else thought and wrote. I love her humility and authenticity here and ascribe to the similar views for myself and my writing.[7]

Conclusion

Maria is inspirational because she works hard, she loves to learn, and she isn’t afraid to cut against the cultural grain. She believes in good over evil; she is intellectually optimistic (which is rare in our culture), and this means she sees truth as Truth and holds to it, believing it to be supremely valuable and practically applicable. Maria isn’t a Christian–she doesn’t believe Jesus is God and that He is the only way to eternal life, but she benefits enough from the common grace of God that she is able to sift through mounds of data and come away with well-thought positions, some of which end up being capital-T True.

And because of God’s common grace, and His Truth hidden in the fabric of creation, I’ve found His Truth in content she curates and writes about–but more. Since she curates authors from across time and cultures, I’ve found timeless inspiration, education, and hope enough to help me in my own learning process, and for this, I am very thankful.

Photo credit to Anna Wolf for Dumbo Feather, posted by OnBeing.

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