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The Magnum Opuses of Literature

Updated: Dec 27, 2023


#1: Maria Popova's Figuring (Book of the month)

Reviewed by Ayesha

Maria Popova - Figuring Book - Literature Reads

If you have not yet formed a friendship of mind with literature, you can read this book. If you have but are yet to forge the bond with a keepsake; a token that reveals the ecstasy of reading and its manifestations, you can read this book too.

Maria Popova’s Figuring is a philosophical and poetic exploration of the vestiges of the human experience dipped in literature, science, art, and philosophy. It consists of intense mysteries of what makes a human being human.

Mystery novels have nothing on the perfectly surreal and breathtaking world that Maria Popova narrates in the book. It’s the world we live in. This is what makes the book feel more real and more amusing than fictional stories.

Popova captures the necessary wisdom which is that the best way for humans to understand each other is by mapping every experience they’ve ever had; and the kindness, genuineness, empathy, compassion, and awareness that it ushers from the deepest depths of the mind. And only through profound reflection and self-analysis can we imprint every book we’ve ever read – with our whole being.

“What we recognize as beauty may be a language for encoding truth, a memetic mechanism for transmitting it, as native to the universe as mathematics – the one perceived by the optical eye, the other by the mind’s eye.”

From Maria Popova comes an insightful, intelligent, and moving colloquy of the dimensions of words. The 26 letters that make up the entire universe and bestow a spiritual and fulfilling spirit that dichotomizes interior lives in much the same vein as it frames the exteriority of the universe. This dichotomy of the universe is what humans have been, for generations, capitalizing on to define better and manifest more dramatically the span of a person’s life.

Maria Mitchell, Rachel Carson, Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman – every historical figure that Maria Popova chronicles in Figuring are, in truth and meaning, interconnected. That is what makes this such a knowledgeable book to read.

“To soothe and spiritualize, and, as far as may be, to solve the mysteries of death and genius, consider them under the stars at midnight.” - Walt Whitman

Maria Popova has an intuitive and inspiring literary presence. So if you’re reading this, you probably want to know why reading a book like ‘Figuring’ whose backbone is made up of complex intersections is worth your time.

I wouldn’t consider this a lighthearted read. It is deliberately structured to bestow as much knowledge as possible- so it’s obvious that the book’s gravitas is that it’s written for the deeply passionate, unabashed, and tenacious reader.

Here are my two cents (if you care enough to read them) on the book:

What’s the book about?

Figuring consists of 30 chapters starting from 0 to 29. They consist of many facts and figments of human lives ensconced and buoyed by the “figuring and reconfiguring” of their reality.

Maria Popova dips her literary pen into many inks to create this almost encyclopedic discourse of various schools of thought. Science, art, philosophy, literature, poetry. Her writing is the telescope with which you can map out the constellations that exist on Earth.

“We slice through the simultaneity by being everything at once: our first names and our last names, our loneliness and our society, our bold ambition and our blind hope, our unrequited and part-requited loves. Lives are lived in parallel and perpendicular, fathomed nonlinearly, figured not in the straight graphs of “biography” but in many-sided, many-splendored diagrams.”

What’s the most memorable thing about the book?

How Maria Popova re-defines the interiority and exteriority of human lives. That they are more than mere puppets belonging to a particular time and to a particular place.

Her writing is committed to recompense the mundane and absurd nature of existence through ideas and thoughts that do not abide by the laws of time. Even though we are time’s most brutal captives.

The invisible connections that propel the length and breadth of a person’s life are not weaved in vain. They are the most profound and most empowering of journeys – through time and space.

What’s the least memorable thing about the book?

The passionate language of the text is overpowering. It felt really contagious at first. To breathe in Maria Popova’s literary vocabulary and her poetic correlations magnified by her deep and intuitive research into the lives of others.

But, around halfway through, this very quality feels tiring to read and essentially vague. The countless links that run adjacent and intersect ideas and philosophies spill over the true nature of the book: which is that Popova’s writing appeals to the reader in every writer in the same measure as it appeals to the writer in every reader.

There are just too many links to unlink, too many artifacts to excavate.

The literary arc of Figuring is in no way inadequate or boring. But it’s the kind of book that is best read in bits and pieces. Going no further than a chapter each day which eventually constitutes an entire month of ‘Figuring’ out the seedbed of life and people.

I’d like to end this article with a very insightful quote from the book:

“The richest relationships are often those that don’t fit neatly into the preconceived slots we have made for the archetypes we imagine would populate our lives—the friend, the lover, the parent, the sibling, the mentor, the muse.

We meet people who belong to no single slot, who figure into multiple categories at different times and in different magnitudes. We then must either stretch ourselves to create new slots shaped after these singular relationships, enduring the growing pains of self-expansion, or petrify.”


#2: The Magnum Opuses of Literature

Written by Ayesha

Exploring the most notable works of various essential writers.

Essential classics to read, best books of literature, Italo Calvino, Cioran, Virginia Woolf, Goethe, Lispector, Simone de Beavoir

1. Virginia Woolf - Mrs. Dalloway

The novel forces you to become conscious about what is now. Mrs. Dalloway explores human consciousness with descriptions of nature, streets, and people that come to life as you read them.

Burrowing deeply and unflinchingly into the complexity of human nature that is decorated in conventional ideas to satisfy the needs of society - which is better questioned nowhere else than in Osamu Dazai‘s No Longer Human, when he asks, “what is society but an individual?”

A book like Mrs. Dalloway is unprecedented and timeless. It expands and contracts time like it’s a pebble in the playful palm. Woolf’s rich and textured writing throws light on the hidden corners of the inner life - redefining the transitory nature of desire and nostalgia.

2. Italo Calvino - If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler

Another great exploration of time, Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler is profoundly idiosyncratic. It satiates a reader’s imaginative and poetic palette using the most convincing of literary routes: the journey of the Reader.

The narrator who is the Reader is you. It’s a tragic telling of a story that can never be fully read. And yet you cross many intersections that dissolve the boundaries of reality and fantasy. And yet, the matter that separates both worlds is as translucent as ever.

Italo Calvino injects euphoria and lighthearted wisdom in whatever he writes. And this book is one of the most representative of such a genius. A must-read for the way the story unfolds tirelessly and it appeals to one’s artistic side. So much so that it resonates most with what truly propels your inner life.

3. Goethe - Faust

Moving and sensible, Faust traces the diverging paths of myth and reality into a single work. The true nature of such a relationship is dramatic, no doubt, but it’s also poetic and adventurous.

Goethe writes using bold words to illuminate the vanity of human nature and its weakest spirit. Greed, desire, hunger, and love; the anchors of an unexamined life that are as tragic as they are comedic.

Faust is psychological and soulful. It stabs to puncture the dark recesses of an egoistic and desperate life. Perhaps that is its most redemptive quality. Exploring the shadow life of the protagonist, Faust, the story questions morality through the fear and trembling of his psyche. No other work of literature paints such a portrait of human existence.

4. Clarice Lispector - The Passion According To G.H.

This is a story that slows down time. Reading Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. feels very natural and transient. Her words reveal the true nature of reality which envelops us the most in feeling rather than substance.

By exploring her surroundings, the outer dimensions of her existence, the protagonist is acutely aware of her inner self. For the reader, this is quite a journey. It’s unprecedented because it drags you back and forth within the realms of your immediate reality; how you appear to the walls that surround you and the objects that exist to reify your existence.

Have you ever philosophically investigated where you live? Perhaps after reading The Passion According to G.H. you will. The story is grippingly existential. It’s like waking up from reality into the immediate and spastic world of dreams. Where instead of concrete objects, you are surrounded by phantoms cut out of the fabric that is you.

5. E. M. Cioran - The Trouble With Being Born

In The Trouble With Being Born, Cioran expands upon the seriousness of how we humans cling to our fear of mediocrity that leads us to constantly deny the inner life. Aren’t we all afraid of the absurdity and nothingness of the emptiness that is since inception is a part of every object and human being that roams the earth?

To shed the permanency of one’s choice, Cioran philosophizes, is our life’s only prophecy. And yet we continue to deny that such a philosophical prophecy exists. Instead, we manifest our fear and anxieties out toward the exterior realm. We rely on appearances and how we relate to those appearances; finding new ways to mask and beautify them for our pleasures.

The Trouble With Being Born contains about 200 aphorisms; enriching, unburdening, and grave. Cioran sketches quite a lonely, poetic, and philosophical landscape; the contours and colors of which reveal themselves to you once you begin to loosen the grip of a strangled life around your mind and body. And finally, feel the release that is a fruitful nothingness of life.

6. Simone de Beauvoir - The Second Sex

Astounding philosopher and thinker, Simone de Beauvoir has written The Second Sex with profound delicacy. The book analyzes a biological, mythological, psychological, and historical perspective of women. The writing style is informative and crisp.

You can’t pigeon-hole a book like this to a specific category. But it definitely is Simone de Beauvoir’s Magnum Opus. It illustrates the need for philosophy for women; analytical, political, and cathartic.

What does it mean ‘to philosophize’? According to Simone de Beauvoir, it means to reassess questions of privilege. And how it is only useful in so far as it continues to benefit the “masculine” spirit as the pinnacle which is not only for men but for women everywhere.

When Mary Wollstonecraft wrote in her strikingly powerful and incisive book, A Vindication of the Rights of Women that the “Mind Has No Gender.” Simone de Beauvoir echoes in that undeniable truth that “one is not born a genius, one becomes a genius.”


#3: Film Recommendation

Cinema Paradiso: A film dedicated to films

Cinema Paradiso is a comforting film. It’s a cure for loneliness because it lifts you out of your reality and places you into a poignant and wistful one. However, once you get too close to the bliss that it emanates, it covers you in a blanket of melancholia and longing.

The story is one of those sentimental and unyielding kinds. You feel more than you can see. It’s visually charming; the projection booth, the black-and-white films, the noisy and worn-down theatre, the seats that flood the hall, and the plethora of human faces, all wide-eyed and gaping at the projector screen.

All these things seep under your skin and become a physical part of you – unwilling to let go. Within this caricature, this sacred space where you can simply let yourself go, you can experience life and longing; love and heartbreak; youth and maturity.

The film’s main character, Salvatore Di Vita cherishes not just films but also his paternal relationship with Alfredo. He sits in that projection room to learn how to use it, he watches and memorizes films through a square hole in the wall, and sits next to a lonely man in the theatre watching him mouth all the words of the film before their time.

This makes up his childhood; he feels the dream-images on the screen ignite all the childlike passions he has, curses and yells when the film’s about to end.

The hall that is home to the world of cinema makes a special home in his heart. That’s Salvatore Di Vita’s childhood. His first job, his first love, his first heartbreak, his lonely voyage into himself. All I wanted to do while I was watching the film was to be there with him. Live my lost and distant childhood emulating his.

Cinema Paradiso is beautifully-made as it unmasks all such phases of life. I think it’s a mistake to see them as phases though; as something that has an end right from the start.

You can think of them as shades that intensify and wrap you in happy and sad moments. You learn to let them go not because they no longer serve you but because you don’t serve them.

Life is not merely sorrow or misery or pain, this is made even clearer because of films like Cinema Paradiso. One by one, we meet ourselves without resistance the same way we meet people on the cinema screen. We are the actors that we see unfolding in front of our eyes set in motion to the tunes of chance and reality.


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