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The Swerve is a Pultizer-prize winner, and justifiably so. In a compact way, it manages to tell fascinating, well-researched, stories of both the Epicurean philosophers during the Roman Empire, and the intellectual and religious struggles of the late Middle Ages. These two threads are both really well done, and full of fascinating and illuminating details: monks were not allowed to discuss the books they copied, Epicurus presaged our modern understanding of atoms and evolution, the Papal secretary wrote a joke book, and so on. Greenblatt just does a wonderful job in illuminating these time periods, and how they relate to our own way of thinking. Similarly, the reader is excellent, and the many languages invoked in the book flow naturally from him.
The only downside, and it is a small one, is in the argument itself, that the discovery of the poem "On the Nature of Things" was a critical event in that led to the world becoming modern. I was convinced that the rediscovery of Lucretius was certainly one of the elements that led to the "swerve" and the Renaissance, but there are already other forces at work, many alluded to in the book, that play at least as big a role. However, Greenblatt really wants to make the poem central, though, so we get a somewhat more evasive account of other factors, such as the popularity of humanism, that were also important. As a result, the book becomes a little strained in its main argument, but it doesn't detract from a wonderful historical account. Greenblatt uses all of his considerable ability to make his argument, one that you may or may not buy, but that you are certain to enjoy if you like Medieval, Roman, or intellectual history.
133 of 136 people found this review helpful
Truth be told, I have not quite finished the book, I have read about 3/4 of it, and I am running a bit out of steam. Unless the author is.
The Swerve is amazing in some regards, but it is also problematic, at least for me.
First let me say that the narrator is perfect. In addition to having a beautiful enunciation and pace, he obviously knows Italian, convincingly integrating all these Italian names in the English text. (I am French, and too often cringe at the French pronunciation of some otherwise excellent narrators).
The rationale for the book, the history of the discovery and rediscovery of the ground breaking On The Nature of Things, written c. 50 b.c.e by Roman philosopher Lucretius, is fascinating. My jaw dropped when The Swerve first revealed what was in that ancient poem of which I knew nothing. (I won't spoil it for you if you haven't read it yet.)
The historical and sociological backgrounds are fascinating. I have a passion for the history of books as objects, and that was honey to my ears. You will learn a huge amount about bookmaking, the scribal profession, the importance of lettering, as well as the role of Christianity and the Church on culture, knowledge, science, taste, sex, love, pleasure, pain... in brief, on Western human LIFE. You'll learn how all of the above is connected to books, libraries, collections... and politics, wars, papacy, schisms, heresy.... and then some.
And this is where, in my view, the Swerve puts you on info overload. Don't get me wrong. It is ALL interesting. And I want to hear it all. But maybe not in one single book, the premise of which was to tell me the story of an ancient manuscript. The background too often takes center stage, and feels like a massive digression. He could almost have written one book with each of those digressions into the societal history of the time.
Another problem with the Swerve, which is related to the volume of information it contains, is the time lime. Until the narration settles on the life of the genial Poggio Bracciolini in 15th century Italy, the first 1/4 of the narration repeatedly shifts between Antiquity, Middle Ages, and Renaissance, making the sequence of events rather confusing.
I am at the point in the story when Poggio has died, and I find myself loosing interest in the narrative. The author had succeeded in making Poggio so real, that I felt I was reading a novel. Without Poggio, I find the Swerve to sound a bit more like a history textbook. Maybe I am only suffering from "Poggio withdrawal". I will finish it. Maybe it will pick up steam in a while.
Overall, I highly recommend the Swerve. It is very well written. It does not feel like a theses. The language is elegant and accessible. What you'll learn about The Nature of Things alone is worth the read.
77 of 82 people found this review helpful