Happy Birthday, Brain Pickings!

Oct 24 2013 @ 1:51pm

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Yesterday, friend-of-the-Dish Maria Popova’s wonderfully curated website and newsletter, Brain Pickings, turned seven. There’s really nothing quite like it on the web – a labor of love that consistently turns up the most enriching literary and cultural artifacts, from the daily routines of famous writers to the 100 ideas that changed graphic design. When I look around the web for sites that really do value intelligent content over page-view whoring and advertizing-disguised-as-editorial, Maria’s singular blog perches head and shoulders above the rest.

I’m in awe of her intellectual range and boundless capacity for reading, reading, reading. She is a walking rebuttal to the idea that new media cannot sustain and further deep reading and writing. I see that as the great challenge editorially online – finding a way to harness the energy and curiosity of the web to lead away from ADD listicles and GIFs and toward more long-form reading, complicated thought and intelligent, informed conversation.

Here’s how Maria describes the remarkable growth of her venture:

On October 23, 2006, I sent a short email to a few friends at work — one of the four jobs I held while paying my way through college — with the subject line “brain pickings,” announcing my intention to start a weekly digest featuring five stimulating things to learn about each week, from a breakthrough in neuroscience to a timeless piece of poetry. “It should take no more than 4 minutes (hopefully much less) to read,” I promised.

This was the inception of Brain Pickings. At the time, I neither planned nor anticipated that this tiny experiment would one day be included in the Library of Congress digital archive of “materials of historical importance” and the few friends would become millions of monthly readers all over the world, ranging from the Dutch high school student who wrote to me this morning to my 77-year-old grandmother in Bulgaria to the person in Wisconsin who mailed me strudel last week. (Thank you!)

Later in the post, she offers seven lessons she’s learned from seven years of writing. One of them? “Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind”:

Cultivate that capacity for “negative capability.” We live in a culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having an opinion, so we often form our “opinions” based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. We then go around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to our own reality. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.” But it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.

Maria gets both the perils and the promise of web journalism. She seems instinctively to understand what I was forced to learn by daily blogging for a decade and more: a mind is a wonderful thing to change.