Introducing Brain Pickings

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This post was originally a note written by Mr Choy Fatt Cheong, University Librarian at NTU Libraries to library staff. 

Today, I want to introduce you to Maria Popova, or rather her blog, “brainpickings” <>. She is not a librarian, but what she does is very librarianish. She is the perfect candidate if we are to employ a “Learning beyond the Classroom” librarian. Every day (yes, every day) she posts an article introducing her millions of followers to an interesting book she read. It takes more than a full time job to do what she does. Even if I retire tomorrow and my family doesn’t place domestic demands on me, I will still not be able to do it!

She gives her take on each book and highlight key ideas that provoke us to think about the issues discussed. I don’t see this as a book review site. Rather, it is using a book as an anchor to help us to explore interesting ideas and facets of life. Great minds have distilled their knowledge and discoveries in millions of books for centuries and yet we are using less and less of what others have taken their lifetime to learn. Maria Popova picks some of these every day and shines a light to illuminate their thoughts and wisdom for us. In the last paragraph of every posting, she provides links to other books and readings. Isn’t this what librarians should do? Incidentally, though she is not a librarian, she must have drawn her inspiration from her mother who, I read (or heard) somewhere, studied library science.

Her selection of books is quite eclectic. You will encounter ideas and insights across the whole span of human knowledge. If you are only interested in very specific things, then you may be tempted to skip her postings or give up my recommendation to read her postings regularly. On the other hand, it could be your guide to the wonders of the human mind. In the worst case may just end up as an intellectual dilettante (which is a class better than a couch potato). I think it is good for the soul, at least it rescue us from our own filter bubble. Of course hers is a filter bubble of sorts, but certainly much large than most of us.

The character and behaviour of humans are varied and yet limited. Human behaviour throughout the ages are just variation of archetypal themes. Many of the world’s and human issues today have been talked and written about and buried in books long forgotten. Writers such as Maria Popova point us to the insight and wisdom of all ages. I enjoy dipping into her ten years of brainpickings. They have often caused me to pause and reflect on the ideas encountered.

Just read this passage she highlighted in a post,

“Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately”.

Sounds like some advice from a famous self-help author? No, it is from the mouth of Seneca, Roman philosopher who lived more than 2,000 years ago.

I was also delighted to come across a view of democracy uttered by Leonard Bernstein, who had a profound impact on my interest in music since my teenage years. “Man’s noblest endowment is his capacity to change” and democracy, according to Bernstein, is a way by which changes is carried out the hard but noblest way, “by reason, by choosing, by error and rectification, by the difficult slow method in which the dignity of A is acknowledged by B, without impairing the dignity of C (my italics).

How about “a wish is halfway to wherever you want to go” – a beautiful quote from Maurice Sendak in a philosophy tainted book written for children. Read the story behind this in the post on “Kenny’s Window” . In the introduction to the poet Elizabeth Alexander’s memoir on dealing with loss of her husband, she wrote, “He (the husband) was dead before his body hit the ground, four days after his fiftieth birthday –  a death that Alexander and her two young sons had to somehow comprehend and fold into their suddenly disorienting aliveness. What emerges is a remarkable atlas of loss –  a violent remapping of inner life, which Alexander ultimately transmutes into a cartography of love“. (my italics) – such conjuring of imagery is typical of Popova’s introduction to her books .

I won’t say her blogs are easy reads, you need to focus and concentrate, and she does not help by peppering tempting links throughout the post. However, like all good things, we need to invest effort and also open ourselves to new ideas beyond our immediate horizon. Like I mentioned in the beginning, I find her role to be very in line with what librarians should do. Perhaps we can draw some inspiration from this in our work and also personal life.

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