Experts argue that we don’t read online: we skim, scan, or surf. This is mostly true for me. I prefer a book to a webpage, especially if I want to get absorbed in what I’m reading. When I read online, I have a harder time staying focused. My sabbatical project is an attempt to design a digital environment that can sustain close and deep reading. I’ve found a few websites that give me hope that it’s possible.
One of the first websites that was able to grab and hold my interest was Maria Popova’s BrainPickings.org. Popova is a librarian by training and a reader by nature. In this blog, which really isn’t like any other blog I’ve encountered, she guides you on a journey through books she has read, serving up generous samples, explaining the ingredients that make them so scrumptious, and making you crave the book—dare I say, priming you for consumption, since the hyperlinks to Amazon.com and my Amazon Prime account make resistance futile.
As you read about one book, teasers appear in the left sidebar, whispering in your left ear, “you might also like…” And indeed, yes, I would like that book, and the next one, too. Gorging is easy on Popova’s site, which is exquisitely designed. I don’t care for the highlighter yellow and black color scheme, but it works, directing my attention to the right places, in the right order, so that while I can easily get lost in the ideas, I never get lost or stranded on the site.
I assumed Popova simply had great taste in books, a knack for identifying the best bits, and good web design skills. But after listening to the podcast of her interview with Krista Tippett on On Being, I realized that the book magic she works online isn’t simply the product of good taste: it’s the work of a great writer. Popova is astonishingly articulate, perceptive, and wise.
In response to Tippett’s invariable opening question, “was there as spiritual background to your childhood,” Popova replies without missing a beat:
I grew up with an attitude toward religion that can best be described as a cautious curiosity as a child. And then befitting the teenager’s typical distaste for nuance, it evolved into contemptuous curiosity.
To come up with such a pithy blend of alliteration, parallel structure, and self-deprecating insight to describe any aspect of my childhood would take me hours of painstaking revision (I’ve already revised this awkward sentence 5 times).
Popova spontaneously generates aphorisms that you can chew on for days, like: “critical thinking without hope is cynicism. But hope without critical thinking is naïveté.” She says she tries to “live in this place between the two,” but part of the pleasure of BrainPickings is that, even as it sharpens your critical faculties, it tips the scales toward hope. Popova leans toward hope in the interview, too. Reflecting on the news media’s penchant for horror, she says:
…Yes, people sometimes do horrible things. And we can speculate about why they do them until we run out of words and run out of sanity. But evil only prevails when we mistake it for the norm. And yet, the currency of news journalism is making it the norm.
Popova defies this norm, saying “to me, there is so much goodness in the world. And of course, we just kind of have to show up for it and refuse to leave.” BrainPickings refuses to leave no good stone unturned, especially when it’s inscribed with wisdom.
Reminiscing about her great grandfather, whom she met only through the “extraordinary” marginalia he inscribed in the English books he smuggled into Bulgaria, Popova says she felt a “strange kinship” with him—an attraction to “this sort of intellectual dance with another mind that you could see in the margins of his books.” This “intellectual dance with another mind” is what BrainPickings lets you see. It goes a step further and invites you to join the dance, demonstrating the steps so well that you naturally slip into a rhythm of deep and satisfying reading, feeling as graceful, articulate, and perceptive as Popova herself.
Listening to Popova made me want to be more like Popova. I mentally resolved to start a private blog of my own reading, a choreographic record of my intellectual dance with other writers. It would be, I imagined, a practice of mindFULLNESS. Rather than the mindfulness of meditation, in which you seek to empty your mind in order to be fully present in the sensations of the moment, I would record the FULLNESS of my mind just at the moment I finished reading something. I could visualize the posts—a string of endless glass beads, stretching out into the days ahead.
Then, I spent the next eight hours procrastinating, avoiding writing about the ways in which Popova’s words had inspired me. I took a shower, rode my bike to the office, replied to overdue email, including the one from a PhD student in India inquiring about little magazines and addressing me as “Dear Sir,” and the one from the scholar from New England, who asked me about research I’d done for my dissertation, 20+ years ago. I drove 2o minutes to J. M. Alexander Middle School to get Zac after his E.O.G.’s, only to learn that early dismissal would be unexcused, and anyway, I’d forgotten my wallet, so I didn’t have any ID (a fact I couldn’t admit because there was a policeman behind the front desk, and I still had to drive home). I drove home, sticking to back roads and the speed limit. I even wrote three thank-you notes.
But here I am, refilling my mind with words I’d relished while listening to Popova and walking the dog this morning. We got back home just when Krista Tippett asked her the question that’s at the core of my sabbatical project: “do you have hope and confidence in the Internet, in our technology as a place where — perfection is a big word — but where the human spirit can be cultivated and deepened?” Popova replied, “Well, the thing to keep in mind is that this is such a young medium, you know?”
I paused the podcast—eager to come back to it tomorrow.