Picking sincerity over cynicism: Giving Maria Popova the Brain Pickings treatment

Curator of curiosity Maria Popova took an editorial turn last week to champion journalistic integrity and truth in the media

Maria Popova. Image from Forbes.

I have something of a soft spot for Maria Popova. For the past two years, her Brain Pickings blog has been a constant companion, like a ridiculously well-read friend whose smarts would put yours to shame if it weren’t for her wholehearted delight in sharing them.

That said, I have something of a tsundoku approach to her weekly Sunday newsletters, which tend to pile up in my inbox like the books on my shelf. I have been gradually clearing that backlog, and enjoying every minute of it. But I am baffled as to how, when I can’t get through all she posts in a week, she manages to find time enough not only to write it all but to read all she writes about.

Opening up Brain Pickings is to venture down the rabbit hole of curiosity. Once you’re in, you quickly discover it’s more than a hole – it’s a whole warren of wonderment you could easily get lost in and never emerge from – but at least you’d never get bored.

Albert Camus on Happiness and Love, Illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton (from Brain Pickings)

For a budding writer, there are endless titbits on the creative process from the likes of Hemingway and Steinbeck, Kurt Vonnegut and Henry Miller, Susan Sontag and Joan Didion, Stephen King and E.B. White.

For someone given to occasional encounters with the black dog, there are words of wisdom and perspective from Bertrand Russell and Alan Watts, Seneca and Sylvia Plath, Freud, Einstein and my old pal Camus.

She digests books on the most diverse subjects – from the obsessive habits of Dickens and Joyce to how people’s stories are told through their clothes or their tattoos; from why time speeds up as we age and slows down when we’re afraid to the very limits of what we can know; from Henry Miller’s bladder to how dogs see by smell. For anyone with any curious passion for how books, art, science, philosophy or psychology enrich the human experience, Brain Pickings is an endlessly joyous delight.

Between cynicism & naïveté

When you have a soft spot for something or someone, you tend to forgive the flaws, and for me, Brain Pickings’ main flaw is sentences like that last one. Popova, in her exuberance for her reading, is given to effusive superlatives and hyperbole that can come across as uncritically starry-eyed. Most posts close with a affirmation that the book she is writing about is a delightful/superb/transcendent/endlessly fascinating – even a delicious – read “in its entirety.” But I’ve come to see that as a forgivable quirk of her infectious enthusiasm. After all, though she writes about books, she is not setting out to be a critic. She is more a curator of curiosity, drawing together writers, thinkers and artists who inspire her and allowing them to present their salient points in their own voices.

That said, I became even more smitten last week when she strayed from that curatorial style, set aside her bibliophilia – and her penchant for block-quotes – to write wholly in her own voice. As The Huffington Post drew criticism for its shift from the pervasive negativity in the news to incorporate more positive, Facebook-friendly stories, Popova made an impassioned case in favour of balanced sincerity over both critical cynicism and over-optimistic naïveté.

Since it is a rare thing for her to present her own thoughts, I thought I might do the Brain Pickings honours and give a Popovian digest of her “thoughts on hope, cynicism, and the stories we tell ourselves.”


She begins with the observation that the ability to live with sincerity – either as individuals or a civilisation – requires us to be able to balance the competing tendencies towards critical thinking and hope. Both are required to survive and thrive, she writes.

Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. Hope without critical thinking is naïveté.

Referring  to a piece in The Daily Dot in which Rachel Kramer Bussel accuses Arianna Huffington of presenting “a false view of the world… by skewing the types of stories on her site”, Popova considers what an “un-false view” of the world might be – that elusive touchstone of journalistic integrity: truth. She observes that commercial media interests since the early twentieth century have stymied that integrity, resulting in:

a century of rampant distortion toward the other extreme — a consistent and systematic privileging of harrowing and heartbreaking “news” as the raw material of the media establishment.

In other words, the news has already been skewed in the other, negative, direction for so long that we – and critics like Bussel – have come to accept that bias as the reality. For Popova, the current commercially-interested negativity of the established media is the actual “false view of the world”. She does acknowledge that the twentieth century certainly had an overload of evils – “two world wars, the Great Depression, the AIDS crisis and a litany of genocides” – but that in choosing to take these examples as the characteristic of the whole, “we have spent a century believing the worst about ourselves as a species and a civilisation”.

Returning to the “two polarizing forces”, she counterpoints the critical thinking of the news media and the hope inherent in the great books of literature and philosophy, and presents a characterisation of the capabilities and responsibilities of those who tell stories. Aside from being an eloquent plea for balance to avoid both cynicism and naïveté – it could stand alone as a mission statement for Brain Pickings itself:

What storytellers do — and this includes journalists and TED and everyone in between who has a point of view and an audience, whatever its size — is help shape our stories of how the world works; at their very best, they can empower our moral imagination to envision how the world could work better. In other words, they help us mediate between the ideal and the real by cultivating the right balance of critical thinking and hope.

She leaves it to the legendary E.B. White – a writer for whom she herself seems to have a soft spot – to note that the role of the writer is “to lift people up, not lower them down.”

To end this post in true hyperbolic Brain Pickings style, Maria Popova’s rare editorial is a powerful, essential read in its entirety. Complement it with Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman‘s own call for balance, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking – and of course, with a subscription to the free Brain Pickings newsletter, which will get your Sundays off to an inspiring start – so long as you read it and don’t let them pile up in your inbox.

Poster by Martin Azambuja & Holstee of Maria Popova’s “7 Life-Learnings from 7 Years of Brain Pickings”.
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2 thoughts on “Picking sincerity over cynicism: Giving Maria Popova the Brain Pickings treatment

  1. Oh–this is smart, insightful, well-researched, a bit fanciful yet grounded, enjoyably worded, and, as a whole, delightfully profound. (And–profoundly delightful.) A VERY apt imitation of Maria Popova’s work!

    Thank you! So fabulous!

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