Maria Popova

Writer / United States / Brain Pickings

Maria Popova’s Notable Books of 2011

I've always believed creativity, in design and in everything else, is combinatorial—it’s our ability to take existing pieces of knowledge, insight, information, inspiration, and skill that we've gathered over the course of our lives, and recombine them into something new. Our creative prowess, therefore, depends on the breadth, depth, and diversity of this toolkit of mental resources. Like a set of LEGOs, the more colors, shapes, and sizes the bricks are, the more interesting the LEGO castles we build with them will be.

With this in mind, here are ten books that make wonderful gifts to enrich the design-lover's creative kit with diverse and wonderful LEGO bricks spanning different disciplines and scopes of curiosity.

7 books
Sophie Blackall

Since 2009, artist and designer Sophie Blackall, best known for her children's illustrations, has been capturing Craigslist missed connections in her signature style of Chinese ink and watercolor, brimming with charm, romanticism, and soft whimsy. This tome collects the best of her poetic visual what-if love stories, each told in a shorthand “missed connection,” ranging from the lyrical (I Gave You My Umbrella but the Wrong Directions) to the warm-and-fuzzy (We Shared a Bear Suit) to the shared love of the tragicomic (Ice Skating in Central Park We Collided). Both playful and profound, Blackall’s delicate drawings immortalize the ephemeral with a wink and a wand, breathing into these mundane encounters a kind of magic that transforms them into open-ended modern-day fairy tales.


French illustrator Blexbolex is a master of poetic visual meditation. Each of this book's charmingly matte and papery double-page spread features a full-bleed illustrated vignette that captures the human condition in its diversity, richness, and paradoxes. From mothers and fathers to dancers and warriors to hypnotists and genies, Blexbolex’s signature softly textured, pastel-colored, minimalist illustrations are paired in a way that gives you pause and, over the course of the book, reveals his subtle yet thought-provoking visual moral commentary on the relationships between the characters depicted in each pairing.

Stefan Bucher

If designers did self-help, this is how they'd do it. This delightful pocket-sized compendium of flowcharts and lists illustrated in designer Stefan G. Bucher’s unmistakable style vows to help you figure out life’s big answers, from bringing project ideas to life to creating the perfect conditions for personal growth to defining and attaining happiness. It's thoughtfully conceived and charmingly executed, wonderfully playful yet infinitely useful. Besides Bucher’s own questions, the tiny but potent handbook features contributions from 36 beloved cross-disciplinary creators, including Christoph Niemann, Stefan Sagmeister, Marian Bantjes, Doyald Young, and Jakob Trollbäck.

Robert Klanten
Sven Ehmann
Floyd Schulze

As information continues to proliferate, our quest to extract meaning from it is taking us more and more toward visual synthesis. This large and beautiful volume from Gestalten gathers the most compelling work by a new generation of designers, illustrators, graphic editors, and data journalists tackling the grand sense-making challenge of our time by pushing forward the evolving visual vocabulary of storytelling. It's part high-concept dictionary for a language of increasingly critical importance, part priceless time-capsule of bleeding-edge creativity from the Golden Age of information overload, the era we call home.

Peter F. Neumeyer

Between September 1968 and October 1969, iconic midcentury illustrator Edward Gorey set out to collaborate on three children’s books with author and editor Peter F. Neumeyer. Over the course of this 13-month period, the two exchanged a series of letters on topics that soon expanded well beyond the three books and into everything from metaphysics to pancake recipes. This year, Neumeyer released this fascinating, never-before-published correspondence in a magnificent collection of 75 typewriter-transcribed letters, 38 stunningly illustrated envelopes, and more than 60 postcards and illustrations exchanged between two collaborators-turned-close-friends, featuring Gorey’s witty, wise meditations on such eclectic topics as insect life, the writings of Jorge Luis Borges, and Japanese art.

Lauren Redniss
One hundred years ago this year, Marie Curie won her second Nobel prize, forever changing the paradigm for women in science. In this absolutely astounding book, artist Lauren Redniss tells the story of Curie through the two invisible but immensely powerful forces that guided her life: radioactivity and romance. It’s a turbulent story — a passionate romance with Pierre Curie (honeymoon on bicycles!), the epic discovery of radium and polonium, Pierre’s sudden death in a freak accident in 1906, Marie’s affair with physicist Paul Langevin, her coveted second Noble Prize—under which lie poignant reflections on the implications of Curie’s work more than a century later as we face ethically polarized issues like nuclear energy, radiation therapy in medicine, nuclear weapons, and more. . . . View the complete text
Rana Abou Rjeily

Author Rana Abou Rjeily builds an ingenious cross-cultural bridge by way of a typeface family that brings the Arabic and Latin alphabets together and, in the process, fosters a new understanding of Arab culture. Both minimalist and illuminating, the book’s stunning pages map the rules of Arabic writing, grammar, and pronunciation to English, using this typographic harmony as the vehicle for better understanding this ancient culture from a Western standpoint. The book jacket unfolds into a beautiful poster of a timeless quote by Gibran Khalil Gibran, rendered in Arabic: “We shall never understand one another until we reduce the language to seven words.”

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