Maria Popova is the founder and editor in chief of Brain Pickings, a writer for Wired UK, Design Observer, and The Atlantic, among others, and an MIT Futures of Entertainment fellow, spending far, far too much time curating the web’s interestingness as @brainpicker.


I’ve always found reading, writing, and thinking to be so tightly interwoven that, when done correctly, they become indistinguishable from one another. Like architecting your life and your social circle, architecting your mind’s life is an exercise in immersing yourself in an eclectic mix of viewpoints and directions of thought. In that way, longform is like the most intense of friendships, where the time dedication and the active choice to show up far eclipse the noncommittal acquaintanceship of soundbite culture. A healthy longform diet must thus include something that breaks your heart, something that gives you hope, something by someone you find a little self-righteous, something by someone with whom you’re a little bit in love—and, ideally, the inability to fully tell which is which. With this in mind, here are the five finest pieces I laid eyes and neurons on this year, which did for me all of the above, and then some.


“Mark Twain in Love,” by Ron Powers (Smithsonian)

A bittersweet story about Samuel Clemens, but really about something profoundly and universally human: love, timing, and the often tragic misalignment of the two. And in that story lies a subtle reminder that unless we pursue the heart’s desire with complete clarity of purpose and intention, we’re left forever playing out those could’ve-beens, as Twain did, in our dreams.

“Thus it was Sam’s stubbornness that foreclosed any further encounter with Laura Wright. Yet they did meet, time and again, over the years, in Clemens’ dreams. And dreams, Samuel Clemens came to believe, were as real as anything in the waking world.”

“Post-Artifact Books & Publishing,” by Craig Mod

As both a marginalia obsessive and a hopeless bibliophile torn between the love of books and the mesmerism of the web, I spend a lot of time thinking about the future of books—or, more accurately, about the function books have traditionally served as a medium for arguing and teasing out ideas of significance and cultural gravity. Hardly anyone fuses a bibliophile’s profound respect for books with a designer’s sensitivity to the reading experience and a digital entrepreneur’s visionary bravery more fluidly, articulately, and thoughtfully than Craig Mod.

“Manifested properly, each new person who participates in the production of digital marginalia changes the reading experience of that book for the next person. Analog marginalia doesn’t know other analog marginalia. Digital marginalia is a collective conversation, cumulative stratum.”

“How the Internet Gets Inside Us,” by Adam Gopnik (The New Yorker)

Gopnik is one of my favorite nonfiction authors working today. And this is no ordinary book review of what eventually became my favorite history book of 2011—it paints a riveting connect-the-dots portrait of information’s history and future through such fascinating and surprisingly related subjects as African drum languages, the Morse Code, Marshall McLuhan, and Google.

“Yet surely having something wrapped right around your mind is different from having your mind wrapped tightly around something. What we live in is not the age of the extended mind but the age of the inverted self. The things that have usually lived in the darker recesses or mad corners of our mind—sexual obsessions and conspiracy theories, paranoid fixations and fetishes—are now out there: you click once and you can read about the Kennedy autopsy or the Nazi salute or hog-tied Swedish flight attendants. But things that were once external and subject to the social rules of caution and embarrassment—above all, our interactions with other people—are now easily internalized, made to feel like mere workings of the id left on its own.”

“Lessons According to Salt,” by Liz Danzico

There is something magnificent and magical that happens when we open ourselves up to the poetry of possibility—of “overlookedness,” if you will. (Lesson #1.) 

“The saltbox itself as an object is unremarkable. Alone, it communicates nothing. Says nothing about its role. Its intention. Its history as a gift born out of a romance between my maternal grandparents. Says nothing of its possibilities.

But add people, and it becomes a central iterative device. The license to change, to iterate, to test, to add, to make, to make over, to create (clearly, with food). It gives license and latitude to stray from what has been written (recipes) for those too shy to do. Therefore, it gives strength. It gives iterative powers to those not comfortable with version control. With its subtlety comes comfort in change.

One might say the saltbox, and access to it, is magic.”

“Wikipedia And The Death of The Expert,” by Maria Bustillos (The Awl)

Picking just one of Maria Bustillos’ many brilliant pieces was excruciating, but this meditation on the future of authorship, content curation, and intellectual innovation is simply exquisite, and tickles my own restlessness about the changing currencies and sandboxes of authorship in the age of information overload.

“All these elements—the abandonment of ‘point of view,’ the willingness to consider the present with the same urgency as the past, the borrowing ‘of wit or wisdom from any man who is capable of lending us either,’ the desire to understand the mechanisms by which we are made to understand—are cornerstones of intellectual innovation in the Internet age. In particular, the liberation from ‘authorship’ (brought about by the emergence of a ‘hive mind’) is starting to have immediate implications that few beside McLuhan foresaw. His work represents a synthesis of the main precepts of New Criticism with what we have come to call cultural criticism and/or media theory.”


Share your own Top 5 Longreads of 2011, all through December. Just tag it #longreads on Twitter, Tumblr or Facebook.