This is a special annual edition of the Brain Pickings newsletter by Maria Popova. The regular Sunday edition will be with you predictably and reliably this weekend. In case you missed them, here are my annual selections of the year’s loveliest children’s books and overall favorite books. And if you find any value and joy in my labor of love, please consider supporting it with a donation – this year, like every year for the past twelve, I have invested innumerable hours and tremendous resources in Brain Pickings, and every little bit of support helps keep it going. If you already donate: THANK YOU.
In this annual review, as usual, “best” is a composite measure of what I most enjoyed thinking and writing about, and what readers most enjoyed reading and sharing. Here is to the intellectual and spiritual electricity of the eclectic, and to a beautiful new orbit.
The Difficult Art of Giving Space in Love: Rilke on Freedom, Togetherness, and the Secret to a Good Marriage
A Brave and Startling Truth: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Maya Angelou’s Stunning Humanist Poem That Flew to Space, Inspired by Carl Sagan
Singularity: Poet Marie Howe’s Beautiful Tribute to Stephen Hawking and Our Belonging to the Universe
A Velocity of Being: Illustrated Letters to Children about Why We Read by 121 of the Most Inspiring Humans in Our World
Nietzsche on Truth, Lies, the Power and Peril of Metaphor, and How We Use Language to Reveal and Conceal Reality
Against the Illusion of Separateness: Pablo Neruda’s Beautiful and Humanistic Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech
The Hour of Land: Terry Tempest Williams on the Responsibility of Awe and the Wilderness as an Antidote to the War Within Ourselves
Literary Witches: An Illustrated Celebration of Trailblazing Women Writers Who Have Enchanted and Transformed the World
I hope 2019 turns out to be your best year yet. Happy New Year!
My five most popular articles
The best three books I read this year
1. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The book tells the story of a black tobacco farmer named Henrietta Lacks, better known to scientists as HeLa. After she was diagnosed with cancer, her cells were taken without her permission. Once they were out of her body, something miraculous happened: They didn’t die. They became the first-ever line of cells that continued to replicate long after she passed away. Her cells went on to launch a medical revolution, leading to the development of the polio vaccine, DNA mapping, cloning, and a multimillion-dollar industry. To call this book a “medical biography” would be to vastly underestimate the punch it packs. There’s race. There’s medicine. There’s ethics. And in the middle of it all, there’s a riveting story about Henrietta Lacks, who’s finally lifted out of the petri dish and placed into our cultural consciousness.
2. In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson. Plenty has been written about Hitler’s ascension to power, but this book has a unique take. You’ll get a gripping look at Hitler’s rise from the perspective of outsiders: America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Berlin and his family. Larson is a master storyteller and this book is the closest thing that comes to traveling back in time to a horrific period when the beasts revealed their true nature as the world stood idly by.
3. Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction by Derek Thompson. Why do hits become hits? Why do some songs, movies, and books become bestsellers while others fizzle out? This beautifully written book tackles these questions. The central argument is simple: Hit makers are “architects of familiar surprises.” They put new costumes on old stories–think Romeo and Juliet on a sinking ship (Titanic), a dysfunctional marriage involving Russian spies (Americans), or the story of a young, scrappy, and hungry founding father rapping on the modern Broadway stage (Hamilton). The book is a riveting read, whether you’re in the business of creating hits or simply curious why Fifty Shades of Grey became a worldwide sensation.
The three most popular Famous Failures Interviews
On Famous Failures, I interview the world’s most interesting people about the failures they’ve had in their lives. Here are the three most popular interviews this year:
1. Caroline Webb on How to Build Resilience in the Face of Failure. Caroline is the CEO of Sevenshift, a firm that shows people how to use insights from behavioral science to improve their working life. Her book on that topic, How To Have A Good Day, was published in 16 languages and more than 60 countries. In the interview, Caroline shares her diverse career path and why the quality of her day-to-day experience didn’t necessarily improve as she moved up the career ladder; why focusing too narrowly on long-term career goals can backfire; and why she sings Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” before client workshops.
2. Erica Ariel Fox on Winning from Within. Erica is an advisor to CEOs and other senior executives on their leadership challenges. She is the New York Times best-selling author of Winning From Within: A Breakthrough Method for Leading, Living, and Lasting Change, and she’s taught at Harvard Law School for most of the last 20 years. In the interview, Erica explains why the most important negotiations you can have in your life are the ones in your own mind, how the stories we tell ourselves get in the way of our full potential, and why you must stand in the truth of your failure to learn and grow.
3. Jordan Harbinger on Being Fired From The Art Of Charm & Viewing Failure as an Opportunity. Jordan, a lawyer turned talk show host, social dynamics expert, and entrepreneur, was laid off from his Wall street firm, fired from a top 50 iTunes podcast, and kidnapped twice while working for various governments and NGOs. In the interview, we discuss how Jordan uses first-principles thinking to do things differently and stand out from the crowd–in a good way. Jordan also explains how he was recently fired from the Art of Charm, the podcast that he hosted for over a decade, and the lessons he learned from that business breakup.